The female protagonists of the darkly funny thrillers Bound, Curdled, and Butterfly Kiss don't fit neatly into the usual Madonna-whore roles usually ascribed to women in film. But they are cleaning ladies, in a sense: Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) mop up a Mafia money-laundering machine in Bound. Murder junkie Gabriela (Angela Jones) takes a job scrubbing congealed blood from grisly crime scenes in Curdled. And drab Miriam (Saskia Reeves) has her hands full disposing of the corpses left behind by her lover, the lethal waif Eunice (Amanda Plummer) in Butterfly Kiss. Like the best sanitary engineers, these anti-heroines roll up their sleeves and attack the messy stuff. Their jobs are not for the squeamish: sangre spurts, spills, and sluices get into the darnedest places; lopped-off body parts and kinky sex complicate the chore.
Ironically, men wrote and directed all three films, yet guys do not fare particularly well in any of the flicks. In fact, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski (who teamed up to write and direct Bound), Reb Braddock and John Maass (who lensed and scripted Curdled), and Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce (who collaborated on Butterfly Kiss) deserve kudos for portraying the male ego as a fatal character flaw. In the Wachowskis' film, a macho Mafioso (Joe Pantoliano doing Joe Pesci better than Pesci does these days) passes up a chance to abscond with a couple of million dollars -- and his life -- because he refuses to believe his decidedly unshrinking Violet prefers the affections of the sexy handywoman next door. In Curdled, a vicious serial killer loses his head over Gabriela, who gets aroused when he shares with her the intimate details of his murderous exploits. And in Butterfly Kiss, a truck driver and a traveling salesman find out too late that a lovebug smooch conceals a black widow's bite.
The trio of films fudge the boundary between the humorous and the macabre, with Curdled oozing more toward the black comedy end of the spectrum and Butterfly Kiss emphasizing its horrific elements. Bound elicits uneasy laughs from a gangster's ineptitude in the middle of a brutal torture session; Curdled's Gaby surreptitiously sneaks her cassette player into a crime scene and then later re-enacts the victim's death throes as if they were a choreographed dance, finally collapsing to the floor amid the dried blood and assuming the position of the corpse. And Miriam's rationalizing away of Eunice's essential evil takes on comical dimensions. Fans of National Lampoon in its heyday will recall that magazine's unofficial slogan: "That's not funny; that's sick!"
Bound is the slickest of the three offerings. The film opens with a shot of Corky, a female thief recently paroled after serving five years for "redistribution of wealth," lying bound and gagged in a closet. The story unfolds in flashback as Corky's voice-over narration wryly reviews the sequence of events that resulted in her predicament.
It starts innocently enough, with her grateful acceptance of a job as maintenance person in an exclusive Chicago apartment complex. There she meets Violet, the sexy mistress of wise guy Ceasar, who runs a nightclub that serves as a front for a Mob money-laundering operation. Tilly and Gershon play the sexual attraction that springs up between Corky and Violet so broadly that it comes across like third-rate soft-core porno; Gershon flashes the predatory sneer and sexual lip curl that made her such a guilty pleasure to watch in Showgirls (where she appeared to be the only member of the cast who realized what sewage she was slogging through) and Tilly comes on to her with all the subtlety of, say, Anna Nicole Smith. The actresses really amp the camp; you begin to wonder if the filmmakers have lost control of their film. In the early going, Gershon's tough-talkin', nail-hammerin' butch ex-con exhibits all the subtlety and nuance of Jennifer Beals's portrayal of a welder in Flashdance, and Tilly's surrealistically squeaky-breathy voice makes her tacky come-ons sound about as enticing as hackneyed pickup lines from the mouth of a drunken conventioneer. Despite Tilly's pulchritudinous appeal and Gershon's unbridled sensuality, the two stars' much-hyped sex scenes together generate about as much heat as a typical Playboy Channel outtake; the only thing that sets their tryst apart from other mildly explicit Hollywood couplings is the lesbian angle.
The real fun begins after the girls quench their carnal appetites. One of Ceasar's underlings has been skimming; after being tortured and mutilated, he leads the Mafioso and his partners to the dough, which totals more than $2 million. But one of the gangsters loses his cool and blows the embezzler away, spewing blood all over the cache. Ceasar takes the money home to launder it -- literally. Violet, face to face with all that wet loot, contacts her new special friend Corky and enlists the parolee's aid in hatching an elaborate scheme to abscond with the millions. But can they pull it off? Should Corky trust Violet? What if Ceasar and Violet are setting the recently released prisoner up for a fall -- a development that might explain Corky's bound, gagged, and closeted state? To their credit, the Wachowskis throw in enough twists to keep you guessing right up to the last larcenous frame. Bound starts out looking like a bomb, but closes with a bang.
Curdled makes no attempt to generate the kind of suspense that flows so easily from Bound. You find out who the killer is within the film's first five minutes; the only questions, once you get to know Gabriela and her morbid fascination with murder, are when the serial slayer and his wide-eyed fan will meet and what will happen when they do. The film, which was shot in Miami and brims with wry inside jokes about South Florida's trigger-happy populace, stages a few painfully sick-funny scenes and gets maximum mileage out of cute and seemingly innocent little Gaby's dark side. (The film's acting covers a lot of peaks and valleys; one constant high point is the nuanced work of supporting actor Bruce Ramsay whose character discovers Gaby's secret and courts her with a mixture of titillation and revulsion.) But the film, which grew out of a 30-minute film school project, suffers from too much padding. The middle third sags noticeably; enjoyable though it may be, Curdled feels like exactly what it is -- a short film with an excellent concept stretched to fit feature length. The story could have been told equally effectively in half the time.
You've gotta love the behind-the-scenes aspects, though. Former FSU cinema students Braddock and Maass cooked up Curdled's basic plot for their senior thesis film, which they shot on 16mm for chump change. After graduation they made the rounds of film festivals, presenting the short as their calling card. Eventually that Tarantino fellow caught a screening, and liked the film so much he eventually signed on as executive producer. Q: "Where does a 900-pound gorilla sit?" A: "Anywhere it wants." In today's Hollywood, Q.T. is as close to a 900-pound gorilla as it gets. With Tarantino in their corner, it was only a matter of time until film school heroes Braddock and Maass found themselves in Miami, shooting the feature-length version of their clever little student film on a budget some 200 times greater than their initial outlay. Braddock and Maass had hit the jackpot, bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of Seminole bingo.
While uneven performances dilute some of Curdled's impact, a pitch-perfect tour de force from Amanda Plummer keeps Butterfly Kiss aloft. Imagine Thelma and Louise as rewritten by serial killer Aileen Wournos. Psychotic bisexual drifter Eunice roams about the anonymous petrol stations and monotonous truck stops of the north of England, following her carnal appetite wherever it leads, and killing when the spirit moves her. She searches for an elusive (and probably imaginary) lover named Judith. When she crosses paths with meek service station cashier Miriam, Eunice's impulsiveness, humor, passion, and sense of purpose -- the quest for Judith -- overwhelm the quiet, repressed sales clerk. Miriam falls in love and finds herself drawn uncontrollably into Eunice's corpse-strewn orbit; she does her best to defuse Eunice's volatile temper and keep the carnage to a minimum. But as her devotion to Eunice strengthens, a question arises: Can Miriam make Eunice good before Eunice makes Miriam evil? The disturbing, emotionally charged Butterfly Kiss offers no pat answer; the film merely examines the lengths to which people will go to save not only their loved ones, but themselves.
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Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski; with Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, and Joe Pantoliano.
Written by John Maass and Reb Braddock; directed by Reb Braddock, with Angela Jones, William Baldwin, Mel Gorham, Lois Chiles, and Bruce Ramsay.
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce; directed by Michael Winterbottom; with Amanda Plummer and Saskia Reeves