In August 1996, Lana and Lilly Wachowski released their directorial debut, Bound. An erotically charged thriller about two lesbians stealing money from the mob, Bound is the epitome of the ever-popular “be gay, do crime” meme/ethos, and 25 years later, it’s still an uncompromising vision of queer horniness.
A neo-noir film in the style of Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Bound is about the electric connection between Corky, a lesbian ex-con plumber, and Violet, a sex worker stuck in a relationship with Caesar, a dangerous mobster. What starts as a fiery romance quickly becomes a dangerous partnership when they attempt to steal two million dollars from the mafia. At one point, Corky compares the acts of theft and sex, a moment that sets the tense tone for the rest of the film. “Two people who want the same thing get in a room and talk about it,” she says to Violet as they begin to plot their scheme. “It’s kind of like foreplay because the more they talk about it, the wetter they get.”
At the time of it’s release, Bound was applauded for being cutting-edge in its portrayal of queer sex. Not only were its characters’ sexuality beside the point, it featured women who unapologetically loved sex and gave viewers a far more realistic perspective of their pleasure than other films of the time. This was due in no small part to the Wachowskis’ acquisition of feminist writer and sex educator Susie Bright as a technical consultant for the film — she choreographed both of its exceptional sex scenes (more on those below). A co-founder of the prolific lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, Bright brought an authentic queerness to the film, coordinating a lesbian bar scene full of “real-life San Francisco dykes,” and orchestrating an achingly sexy moment in which Corky dismantles a pipe, hands dripping with water. In fact, Bright was a large part of why Bound is filled with imagery that is, for lack of a better word, wet as hell.
There’s a heavy emphasis on women’s hands throughout the film, particularly those of Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Corky’s are muscular, tattooed and usually grimy from her plumbing work. Violet’s sport delicate digits and long, painted nails. One of the most radical aspects of the was how it focused simulating manual sex between lesbians as opposed to how most men conceive of lesbian sex (scissoring and cunnilingus). The film’s first sexually explosive moment could be pulled right out of a queer Penthouse Forum, with Violet calling Corky over to fix a self-made problem with her sink before seducing her, porn-plumber style. “You can’t believe what you see, but you can believe what you feel,” Violet says in her iconically breathy voice before licking the butch’s fingers and placing them between her legs.
The film’s main sex scene follows soon after, and it’s still one of the best there is. In previous lesbian films like The Hunger and Desert Hearts, all we got was kissing, some light gyration and someone disappearing offscreen to imply cunnilingus. In Bound, they’re very clearly hand-fucking. With Violet now topping Corky, the camera does a slow swirl around the room in one continuous take. Toes curl, fingers end up in mouths and fitted sheets get inadvertently pulled off the mattress. A pivotal moment of the film that was, and still is a landmark of queer sex in American film, it focuses holistically on erotic passion shared between queer women, but it was also the main reason Bound was almost barred from a major release. Though the only “explicit” body parts shown were the two actresses’ breasts, the film barely avoided an NC-17 rating because of it, with the MPAA claiming the sex scene was “too convincing.” The Wachowskis fought this vigorously, calling it out for the homophobia it was. They persevered, and cinematic handjob history was made.
Bright has gone on record saying hands are a lesbian sex organ in the film, making a later scene all the more gruesome: When Corky and Violet have been found out and Violet’s mafioso ex-lover Caesar threatens to cut off her fingers, it’s a threat of figurative castration.
While lesbianism was definitely part of the film, Bound was groundbreaking in how it featured queer characters without centering their sexuality as the main narrative, and also for how it let one of its female leads (Gershon) fill the role of an archetypical noir protagonist (typically male). The butch character was a big change for Gershon, having just come off of Showgirls, but it was one she admittedly wanted to play. Modeling the character off of the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Robert Mitchum, Gershon cut her hair, took up boxing and even went to a San Francisco lesbian bars to get in the headspace of a quiet lothario.
It wasn’t easy to get this kind of gay criminal representation onscreen, though. Though the Wachowskis were reportedly offered more money if they changed the role of Corky to a man, the pair were adamant that it stay a woman’s. In a 2019 conversation between Gershon and Tilly about the film, Gershon admitted to firing her agents over their resistance toward her taking the role she’d long dreamed of. “I never get to play the hero and to get the chick,” she said. “I mean, it’s the typical part that I’ve watched my whole life, and it’s never been a woman.”
The film’s gender-play went beyond just Corky though — Violet is also a brilliantly realistic subversion of gendered expectations based. She was not only a femme fatale but a femme top, unapologetic in her love of women and fucking them. In a 2003 interview, the Wachowskis revealed that the idea for the film sprouted from the misguided assumptions one might make of a woman on the street. This “lent itself to this idea of surfaces and the truth under [those] surfaces,” they said.
Even Corky herself is guilty of making those judgments — at one point, she accuses Violet of “not being the same as her” because she sleeps with men. To that, Violet insists that the intercourse she has with them isn’t sex, but simply “work.” “You think you’re the only person that’s good at something?” she fires back, refusing to let herself be diminished. “We make our own choices, and we pay our own prices. I think we’re more alike than you care to admit.”
Likewise, the film makes it abundantly clear that while Corky devises the plans, Violet is the one who drives the plot and solves most of the problems that come with it. This dynamic is perfectly framed in a scene where they get ready for their big theft. While Corky prepares her lock-picking equipment, Violet applies her makeup at a vanity. A thief and a femme fatale — each with their own tools to take what they want.
I Want Out
At the time of its release, many viewers were surprised at how the filmmakers created such a uncannily accurate film about the sexual and emotional lives of queer women. The simple answer is that it happened because it was created by two trans, queer women, Lana and Lilly Wachowski. And though much has been written about the trans narratives in their more well-known Matrix series, less is said about the motifs of hidden selves and coming out in Bound. Both of these things even show up in the setting, with the apartment walls being so thin that you can hear everything — they’re constructed barriers that hide little. And not to be overly Freudian, but the opening shot is of a woman bound and gagged inside a closet.
Along those themes, the film makes several allusions to different prisons — both literal and figurative — with Corky’s five years in prison forming a neat parallel with Violet’s five years stuck with Caesar. In a pivotal scene when Violet goes to Corky after watching men torture each other, Violet talks about her discomfort and inability to cope with the life she fell into. “I used to be able to block it out,” she says. “I’d tell myself I wasn’t really there so none of it really mattered. But I can’t do that anymore. I want out. I want a new life.” Underneath all the fingering and mob plots, this is a story that looks at breaking away from the lives we’ve been forced to choose when we realize what we really need.
When Violet first seduces Corky, Caesar walks in furious to find someone else in his apartment but then becomes placated upon realizing it’s a woman. Violet tells him that Corky is doing all the plumbing work. “You must be really good with your hands,” he says before reaching to shake the one that was just inside Violet.
The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate how horny, brilliant or dangerous lesbians can be.