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Wes Anderson Retrospective: Bottle Rocket (1996)

The plot makes no sense and the film contains none of the hallmarks we’ve come to associate with the director to date, but when “Bottle Rocket” exploded onto the scene in 1996, it launched the careers of director Wes Anderson and Actor Owen Wilson – putting the film community on notice.

The directorial debut of Wes Anderson, Bottle Rocket (1996) was a feature-length reimagining of a short shot back in 1992. Featuring Anderson’s University of Texas roommate, Owen Wilson as Dignan; his real-life brother, Luke Wilson as Anthony; and Robert Musgrave as Bob; the film focuses on the three’s petty crime escapades in the US suburban south. A comedy, the film showcases both the professionalism of Anderson’s directing and the acting of his cast. At no point does this feel like a b-grade movie slapped together on a shoestring budget. Rather, the polish of the production is noticeable. While some directors seem to struggle with one or another of the technical aspects of filmmaking early on in their careers, Anderson’s debut sails smoothly on through.

The film begins with our introduction to Anthony – a young man who’s voluntarily checked himself into the local psychiatric hospital. Today is Anthony’s discharge day and best mate Dignan has come along to collect him – only Dignan doesn’t seem to understand the voluntary nature of the facility. A prison-like escape ensues, complete with a bedsheet rope ladder where Anthony plays along with Dignan’s fantasy. Caught by the doctor, Anthony is forced to explain his elaborate exit:

“…he got this whole escape thing worked out…I didn’t have the heart to tell him” “…don’t try to save everybody” the doctor replies.

Thus, we are introduced to Dignan – a man living in his own elaborate version of the world.

Shortly after, we become privy to Dignan’s 75 year plan – a childish blueprint of the life of crime he envisions for Anthony and himself. The pair waste no time in enacting their plan either, robbing what is soon revealed to be Anthony’s parents house. Whilst Anthony seemingly has no qualms with this, his mood quickly sours when it is revealed that Dignan appropriated the earnings he brought his mother for her birthday. All of a sudden, it’s Anthony’s state of mind we call into doubt. Is he too, a resident of this crime-filled fantasy world? The film certainly seems to want you to think so. If the rapid fire first 10 minutes have an agenda, it’s to paint an unambiguous picture of the pair as delusional daydreamers – something I’ll take issue with later on.

It isn’t long before Dignan recruits Bob, the only person he knows with a driver’s licence, to act as the gang’s getaway driver. After robbing a local bookstore, the trio decide to lay low till the heat dies down in a small roadside motel. It isn’t long before Anthony meets and falls deeply in love with Inez, the motel’s Paraguayan housekeeper, putting his dedication to the gang to the test. If this isn’t enough, Bob also ditches the others when his brother is arrested due to his (Bob’s) backyard marijuana crop, leaving Dignan and Anthony stranded at the motel.

Blue Rocket directed by Wes Anderson (1996).

At this point the film steers strongly in the direction of a rom-com with a focus on the relationship between Anthony and Inez. Significant time and effort is spend building the relationship and it begins to look as if the crime spree was just preamble for the meeting of the two lovers. Not so, however, as language barriers lead to some miscommunication between Anthony and Inez, and tensions rise between Anthony and Dignan. Out of money and without transportation, emotions boil over and the pair go their separate ways.

Months later, we find Anthony and Bob back in their hometown living a life of routine and staying out of trouble – thanks largely to the lack of Dignan’s bad influence. The tranquillity doesn’t last long however, as Dignan, who has joined “Mr. Henry” in his landscaping-or-maybe-professional-crime-gang-We-aren’t-really-sure-yet? business, locates Anthony and tries to recruit him. Turns out Mr. Henry’s for real, involved in a number of criminal activities, including many crimes against fashion (most notably exemplified by that croc tooth necklace). Anthony is eventually convinced to join and Bob quickly follows suit.

The trio, along with several Mr. Henry’s associates then attempt an actual heist. Here, we are treated to some of the film’s best dialog thanks to the hilarious interactions between Dignan and safe-cracking extraordinaire Kumar (played by retired yoga instructor and Anderson regular Kumar Pallana). Of course, the heist goes comically wrong, eventually resulting in the arrest of Dignan. In a moment of heroic self-sacrifice, Dignan delivers the best line of the movie:

“They’ll never catch me man….cause I’m fucking innocent”

It turns out Dignan is not in fact innocent (who would have thought?), and we find him locked in the slammer and visited by Anthony and Bob. Turns out Mr. Henry’s pulled a swift one, robbing Bob’s parent’s house whilst the trio were conducting their heist. Anthony informs Dignan of Inez’s impending visit and Dignan expresses content with having lived out his dream. The film ends with one last hair-brain escape plan hatched by Dignan, soon revealed to be a joke. Its self-referential nature once again brings into question Dignan’s sanity. Was he ever truly crazy? We’ll never know.

Unfortunately, the ending also manages to collect in one place the numerous threads that lead to the major criticism of this film; its lack of a cohesive narrative. During the beginning, the film is about a group of delusional delinquents, mid-way through it abruptly morphs into a romantic comedy, and by the end it’s a crime comedy. Ultimately, it’s all of these things and none of them. The movie meanders, going in one direction and then another. Of course, many good films have been made about everything and nothing, however, it seems that in this case the lack of structure is due more to poor writing than any sort of master plan.

Blue Rocket directed by Wes Anderson (1996).

Despite this complaint, the film is still an enjoyable experience. At 91 minutes, it doesn’t drag. The acting is strong and the cinematography, tight. Also notably, it captures the first recorded occurrence of an Owen Wilson “Wow” (look for when Anthony show’s Dignan his sketchbook). Whilst it wouldn’t be the first or even the fifth Wes Anderson film I’d recommend, it’s essential viewing for die-hard fans.

2 / 5