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Directed by: The Wachowskis

Starring: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, John Ryan, Christopher Meloni

The illicit thrill of pulp cinema has always been an attraction to fledgling directors, a means of imposing a directorial style and subverting the tropes of existing genre material. The Coens took the trappings of film noir and turned it into sinuous black comedy with Blood Simple, a film full of visual bravado that belied its low budget. Clearly the Wachowskis took a leaf from the siblings playbook when constructing Bound. Taking the type of plot-line used in a 1001 direct to video thrillers (usually starring Shannon Tweed) - criminality, sapphic sex and violence - and turning it into something smarter, wittier and more cinematic.

Eschewing porno chic and investing in the surface of a group of cliched characters - the gangster Caesar (Pantoliano), the gangster's wife Violet (Tilly), and the outsider who may be mastermind or patsy in Corky (Gershon) - pays dividends. Like the best crime fiction, the con is complex enough to hold your interest, but the characters are what grip you in an emotional vice.

Smartly, the lesbian angle is not used for the titillation of the male audience, but as the galvanising force that drives both the romance and the heist. Rather than just changing the gender of the hero for an erotic frisson, Corky's sexual identity is pivotal to the plot. In the highly masculine and chauvinistic world of the mob, Gershon’s ex-con handy woman is invisible. In one pivotal scene, Caesar walks in on his wife, interrupting a sexual encounter between her and Corky, initially erupting at what he thinks is a male in his apartment. He relaxes as soon as he realises it is only the woman fixing the apartment opposite. In Caesar’s male gaze, the possibility of being cuckolded by another woman never enters his mind.

It is this very invisibility that allows the two lovers to pull off the con. That and Violet’s ability to live up to expectations as a cleavage heavy Barbie who has used her sexuality as a means to a better life than for any emotional and physical enjoyment. The two leads have never been better. Gershon is a capable, slightly masculine performance that never falls into caricature. Like Melanie Griffith, Tilly can sometimes be a squeaky breathless annoyance; here she is playing the role of the gangster moll. She looks weak and vulnerable to the coterie of wiseguys that buzz around Caeser, eager to protect her, but inside you sense the steel and determination, with a hint of ambivalence that she may be taking everyone for a ride. The character's sexuality is taken seriously and portrayed in a grown up manner (this isn’t a film that needs a crinkly old detective in a v-neck sweater to fuck the straight into these ladies).

It may be refreshingly women centred, but by foregrounding the female performances, the Wachowskis don’t underwrite the male characters. Joe Pantoliano may be trying out a blow hard variant of his mob psycho in The Sopranos, but he remains curiously sympathetic. He is loyal to his crime family to a fault, though his need to do the right thing by his mob brothers may mean death for them all. Pantoliano plays him like a schnook who thinks he's a wiseguy, two steps ahead in his mind but always one step behind in reality.

Like a lot of first films,there is a tendency to overplay the vertiginous camera moves and showy visuals at the expense of tonal unity, but the film has the ability to be both transgressive, playful and smart in a confident manner that would be the envy of more experienced film directors. The setting out of the plan in voiceover, while it is occurring on screen, is a masterful piece of editing and storytelling economy. This and The Matrix may have been one of the great one, twos of modern cinema. While their eventually sprawling and bloated trilogy may have reinvented the cinematic language of the action and science fiction film for a decade, this is the more inventive and daring film.

Extras:

The usual high quality transfer from Arrow for a film of modern vintage, as well as DTS 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo Options. There is an audio commentary with the directors and cast and crew, which is from a previous release of the film. You also get some medium length interviews with the cast of the film. A documentary, which features the Editor, Director of Photography and Composer. Some vintage interviews at time of release, trailer, TV spots and a stills gallery. That and the usual reversible sleeve and booklet, this time from James Oliver. A good selection but nothing truly essential or comprehensive.

By Jason Abbey

THEMOVIEWAFFLER.COM


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