Welcome to the first edition of one of our Cinematropolis essay columns, Underexposed, where we look at the buried, under-appreciated or forgotten screen gems from outstanding filmmakers. Each edition of Underexposed will explore a different film under that respective month’s theme and will highlight its significance to remind you why it’s worth your time.
The theme of our inaugural month at The Cinematropolis is “First Films by Great Directors” and few auteurs have more hidden gems than Lilly and Lana Wachowski. When considering different options for my first post, I was shocked to hear that none of my filmmaker or film critic friends had seen Bound. I started asking around and was surprised to know so few people who had actually seen this film. The guy three seats down from me at the bar? He hadn’t seen Bound. And the bible thumping ex-eggheads of Twitter now lurking in the depths of 4chan? They hadn’t watched the movie either! The exposure of this film is so low, I’m sure if I gave the Wachowskis a call right now, they’d tell me that not even they had seen their very own first film. This makes Bound the perfect pick for our Underexposed launch.
The first things that come to my mind when thinking about the Wachowskis are leather trench coats, ridiculously shiny sunglasses and highly stylized slow-mo action sequences. Their later films like Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending and most notably their Netflix series, Sense 8, all lean into themes of social justice, the moral relativity of criminals and the powerful fighting to maintain control over the oppressed. But it’s their first film, Bound, that’s actually a key but often forgotten piece of their careers. As we take this trip back through their careers, it becomes clear that the Wachowskis have been exploring spirituality, their rage against social norms and tearing down oppressive regimes since the very beginning.
These themes have become more and more prevalent throughout their career, but the seeds of these ideas can actually be traced back to Bound, a film about two women who bond together and conspire to escape the oppression of the mafia. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Bound, the film stars Gina Gershon as an ex-con turned plumber named Corky who falls for Jennifer Tilly’s character,Violet, the wife of a money launderer for the mob. The two quickly become romantically involved and Violet spills the beans on the status of her business relationship with her partner, Caesar, played by Joe Pantoliano. After assisting the mafia in the money laundering game for more than five years, Violet decides she’s ready to wash her hands of the bloodier tactics she’s seen in organized crime.
The first and easiest tie Bound makes to the Wachowkis’ other films is its use of criminals as the film’s protagonists. Right from the start, Corky is fresh out of prison and Violet is still deep in shark invested waters. They’re far from innocent, but within ten minutes, the film establishes a romance that instantly brings sympathy to their positions. Their only enemy is the mafia’s thuggish enforcers whose presence threatens to squash Corky and Violet’s plans to steal the money and run.
Using characters who work outside of the law has become a staple of Wachowski films. In The Matrix, the film’s lead, Neo, is a hacker. A hacker who is key to saving the entire human race. V for Vendetta‘s lead joins forces with a terrorist who’s threatening to topple an entire government. Even one of Cloud Atlas‘s storylines features a character who gets thrown into a nursing home in order to avoid the threat of an organized crime syndicate. Putting criminals in the lead is nothing new, not even by 1996 standards, but making our leads outsiders gave the Wachowskis the vehicle they needed to ask the tougher questions about the fallibility of the law and those who write it.
The moral ambiguity of their characters is essential to asking the tough questions about authority and the very nature of reality itself. In V for Vendetta, is V terrorizing the Norsefire party because of his values or is he seeking personal vengeance? In The Matrix, did Cypher every really believe in the rebellion’s cause to destroy the program or the machines? Removing the absolute nature of the law from the equation of good and evil (another favorite theme of the filmmakers) allows their stories and themes to go to places that are infinitely more contemplative. If criminals were so evil, why did they fight so hard to liberate the voices of the every day citizen?
In the case of Bound, the duo also uses the criminal life to explore how it imprisons and oppresses the people working on the ground level. Violet’s role in the laundering is downplayed by Caesar, a man who also takes all of the money and credit when they succeed. Yet, Violet is afraid of what will happen if she decides to leave Caesar. Our other lead is trapped in a different sort of abusive relationship. Despite being out of prison, Corky is trapped in the life of a recent felon whose career can only hope to amount to plumbing at best. In order to escape their oppressive realities, they are forced to use the tools and tricks of their subjugators to get the money.
This goes hand and hand with another recurring theme found in the Wachowskis oeuvre, the struggle of the powerful to maintain control over the oppressed. In the final moments of Cloud Atlas, Haskell Moore, one of the many characters played by Hugo Weaving states:
“There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten-at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”
This statement refers to emergence of abolitionists in 1849. The American lawyer, Adam Ewing, decides to leave Moore’s family fortune to pursue justice for the enslaved and responds with the question “what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
The Wachowskis have spent years exploring the lopsided relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. In both The Matrix and their lesser well received film, Jupiter Ascending, humans are harvested by machines and transhuman royalty for their energy. Humans are too blinded by their false realities and existences to comprehend the abuse they are enduring. That is until someone comes along and delivers a wake-up call or inspires change. The entirety of Vendetta is dedicated to exploring the dangers of a “safe and secure” faith driven fascist government. Even the Wachowskis oft-forgotten Speed Racer pits an independently owned middle class race car driver against the corrupt Royalton Industries mega-corporation in a race.
The Wachowskis are clearly passionate about the evils of dictatorships and those who support these systems. In Bound, Corky and Violet are trapped by their lives of crime and oppressed by the threat of their captors. This threat is only intensified by their less than widely accepted romantic relationship together which brings us to my final point, The Wachowskis’ criticism of social injustice.
The 90s was no stranger to LGBTQ films, but Bound proved to be a special case. Not only were these two women being oppressed by the threat of the mafia, but they were also living under the thumbs of a toxic male-dominated criminal operation that never considered a woman as a viable threat to their plans. These women were not content living in a system that forced them to live their lives as anything less than their best, truest selves.
Lilly and Lana Wachowski have been tackling equal rights with positive portrayals of minorities on the big screen since their first film. This idea has run throughout their entire careers, but can most notably be found in their two season Netflix series, Sense8.
The show features a cast of international characters who are mentally and emotionally connected together. Through this connection, each member of the cast is able to learn the feelings, hopes and desires of the rest of the cast. The series spends a great deal of time exploring themes related to identity, gender, and sexuality and how they all connect to the soul. Like Bound in 1996, Sense8 pushes boundaries and subverts widely accepted cultural norms in order to tell deeper stories about people who have often been oppressed or forgotten.
When you pull back from the rearview mirror, it becomes clear that the Wachowskis don’t trust lawmakers or authority figures to have the best interests of other people at heart. Throughout their body of work, the Wachowskis have called out the rules, people and systems that have actively fought to keep the population dumb, blind and distracted for their own gain. And more importantly, they are calling on their viewers to share the rage by leading the change against the corrupt systems that have exchanged the agency and awareness of citizens for power and profit. Bound portrays its leads as heroic for outthinking the mafia and escaping with the money, The Matrix paints Neo as heroic for breaking the program and V for Vendetta defines V as a martyr who inspires the U.K. citizens to rise up and fight against fascism.
With the recent falling out between the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. due to several consecutive box office bombs, their future in studio filmmaking remains uncertain. But what we have in front of us is an incredible body of work that has consistently pushed the envelop and inspired viewers to rage and think more deeply about human rights and the invisible powers fighting to oppress them.
All great directors have first films, but few first films are as underexposed and important as the Wachowskis’ debut film, Bound.