Mob movies generally take us into a world in which men rule the universe and women are just pawns trying to survive. Bound (1996), a film about two women who design a scheme to double-cross the mob, operates within that same world, but quickly flips the formula on its head as the women exploit the bravado and ego of the men around them to achieve their own freedom.
Ultra-femmey Violet (played by Jennifer Tilly) has been living with small-time money-launder Ceasar (played by Joe Pantoliano) for five years when she meets Corky (played by Gina Gershon), an ex-con who is fixing up the apartment next door. A former thief who now works as a handyman, Corky wear’s men’s clothing, and has an armband tattoo on one arm and a labris tattoo on the other; aside from the long hair, Corky is the closest thing to a realistic and sympathetic butch lesbian we’ve seen in a mainstream movie.
Although Corky is drawn to Violet,she sees Violet as just another curious straight woman because of her relationship with Ceasar and the occasional men whom Corky hears Violet have sex with through the thin walls that separate their apartments. She later discovers that Violet is a call-girl on the side, and very much considers herself a lesbian. “I know what I am,” she tells Corky defiantly. “I don’t have to have it tattooed on my shoulder.”
Violet’s been looking for a way out of the life she’s caught up in when she meets Corky, and together, the two women concoct a plan to steal $2 million from the mob without getting caught. It works precisely because the mobsters don’t take women seriously; when the money turns up missing, it never occurs to them that a woman might have stolen it. There are quite a few twists and turns along the way, however, as Corky and Violet’s plan goes awry and they must scramble to keep from getting caught.
The relationship between the two women is the only honest one in the film, in which almost everyone’s relationships are built on lies and deceit; it’s also the only relationship between equals. Ceasar tells Corky halfway through “everybody knows your kind can’t be trusted,” but trust is actually the reason the women succeed while the men are unable to–because both Violet and Corky put their lives in the other’s hands more than once.
Both the seduction and sex scenes between Violet and Corky in the first half hour of the film are some of the best lesbian sex scenes to date in a mainstream movie, as well as some of the most explicit. But the best part? In this movie, it’s the lesbian couple that rides off into the sunset together.
In fact, besides the excessive violence, the misplaced cutesy-ness of the name Corky, and the way Jennifer Tilly’s voice is occasionally grating, there is little to criticize about this film. Hardly a financial success when it was released in 1996 (the film didn’t quite break even at the box office), Bound nonetheless received generally positive critical reviews and introduced the world to the Wachowski brothers, who went on to create The Matrix franchise.
When the film played in local theaters, many audience members were upset by the explicit violence and lesbian sex, some even walking out of the theatre. If the film was released today, however, I’m not sure it would get the same negative reaction from the average American moviegoer–a reflection of our increased cinematic tolerance of both violence and lesbian sex.
Corky and Violet remain two of the most complex, interesting, and sympathetic lesbian characters in a mainstream movie; the fact that they still stand out as unusual seven years later indicates how far we still have to go.