"On the Run from Johnny Law": Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket
A more grounded, less-whimsical production than what we’re used to associating Anderson with, Bottle Rocket still maintains the adventurous spirit and desire for greatness which shapes his typical protagonists.
Based on the 1994 black-and-white short film of the same name, Bottle Rocket was a passion project for both Anderson and actor Owen Wilson, who collaborated on writing the screenplay during their time as film students. Set mainly in Texas, Bottle Rocket follows Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave), three friends who set out to embark on a life of crime, only to come up short with their near-sighted amatuerism.
A bungled bookstore robbery in the film’s first act leads the group to hide out in a rural hotel, in which Anthony falls for a South American woman and ends up giving her the last of their loot. After animosity drives them to their separate ways, the group later reforms under the tutelage of Dignan’s mentor Mr. Henry (James Caan) and his band of landscaper-thugs known as the ‘Lawn Wranglers’. It’s here that the plan to rob a cold storage facility is set into motion, where, given the course of the film itself things don’t go very well.
The oddball antics are clear from the very first scene, as Anthony getting ready to leave a psychiatric hospital, one he voluntarily checked himself in for due to exhaustion. At the same time, Dignan hides behind some bushes outside the building, believing the scenario to be more of an escape scenario, one that Anthony goes along with for the benefit of his compatriot. We see him leave by climbing down a sheet-rope hung outside his window to meet up with Dignan, who proceeds to divulge a multi-year plan for their promising career as fugitives. It’s this first scene that forms the backbone of Bottle Rocket - the mutual care and support that friends bestow on one another, even in the most outlandish of schemes.
Dignan is by far one of the best characters in Anderson’s filmography, and one strengthened by the behind-the-scenes comradeship he shares with Wilson. As the self-appointed leader of the would-be criminals, his ambition is matched only by his delusion, going as far to taking him past the point of no return. The conniving, rougish qualities that Dignan displays are ultimately the very heart of Bottle Rocket, and it’s hard to imagine the film being anywhere near as good without him in it.
Bottle Rocket’s odd narrative pattern and deployment is certainly incongruous, and at times off-putting. Yet, it does a tremendous job with offering viewers a direct path into the emotional and psychological perspective of its inept leading characters. Like many of Wes Anderson films, it is a world populated by eccentricity, communal aspirations, and affluence; on an underlying level however, the story is driven forward by its dynamic combination of idiosyncratic humor and affection.
While Anderson’s style can be at times a punchline, via its rigorous attention to detail, structural composition, and color scheme, it’s nonetheless invigorating to see where the filmmaker started from, in all its rough-around-the-edges charm. For a debut film it is extremely confident in what it sets out to be, while at the same time bursting with a youthful sense of immediacy that is captivating from start to finish.
Bottle Rocket was by no means a hit on release, despite gaining a range of positive critical notices and earning Anderson an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker (a category since retired, sadly). But it did make enough of an impression to allow for the director to soon after make a follow-up in the form of Rushmore, which bears the quintessential Anderson hallmarks we’ve come to know and love.