“They’ll never catch me man…’cuz I’m fucking innocent.”—Dignan
What is it about Wes Anderson movies that make them so divisive? Most everyone basically agrees that Rushmore is his masterpiece, striking a perfect balance of everything Anderson is known for with a casual effortlessness that has become harder and harder to maintain with his films, but when it comes to the rest of his filmography, there is always a great divide. Some find the quirkiness of the standard Anderson picture overbearing and simplistic. His detractors often decry the style that he’s become known for as it looms larger and larger over his films. Others, myself included, find them great fun, especially on repeated viewings, with the repeated themes and styles becoming almost a kind of comfort food. Anderson’s world is a place of rich, quirky characters, bright colors, and amazing soundtracks.
Which is why it’s so interesting to watch Bottle Rocket again after all these years seeing the elements that Anderson would use over and over again in their basest forms. The classic, early rock is used but only sparingly here and the deliberate, precise cinematography is mixed into an even more free flowing form than his later work. In effect, his first film comes off nowhere near as precious and precise as his later work. There’s a kind of aimless quality to it that gives it the feel of a filmmaker finding his footing. The one element that starts off here and has never seemed to falter is the richness of Anderson’s characters and his genuine affection for them, flaws and all.
The film follows Anthony (played by Luke Wilson), would be dreamer criminal Dignan (played with a great mix of optimistic buoyancy and an intense playfulness by Owen Wilson), and their friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) as they set out to establish themselves as master criminals. When we first meet Anthony, he is checking himself out of a mental hospital where Dignan awaits his release. Well, Dignan doesn’t so much as waits but plots Anthony’s escape, not realizing it’s a voluntary hospital. This is the defining characteristic of the Dignan character. His drive to lead a life of thrills and danger where there is none to be found. It is after this that Dignan lays out his 75 year plan of their criminal lives.
The film is oddly structured in its free form style and much of this would have to do, I’m assuming, with the fact that this is basically a short film that was expanded to feature length. In this sense, the film almost feels like it has two halves giving it an awkward, off kilter feeling. The first half deals with their first robbery and hiding out from the law in a seedy motel where Anthony falls in love with a maid (played by Lumi Cavazos). The second half deals with the group’s dealings with Mr. Henry (played by James Caan) a man who owns a landscaping business and hires Dignan to lead a robbery. A fulfillment of Dignan’s dreams. Though it doesn’t work out in the end, Dignan’s dreams are fulfilled and that’s enough for him. Only a film like this could a character’s imprisonment be the happy ending.
Owen Wilson’s Dignan is an optimistic dreamer, through and through. So much of the film is about what it doesn’t tell us about these characters and then watching their lives come together and apart by the events that transpire. Wilson gives a great central performance as Dignan. There’s a dimwitted persona in there but he plays it with such bravado and gusto that you can see why Luke Wilson’s Anthony gravitates towards him and plays along with his gentle madness.
That’s the beauty of this film, and Anderson’s work in general. There is not a whiff of cynicism or negativity about the characters in the movie. As with all of Anderson’s work, there is genuine affection for his characters through everything they do. The camera never casts them in an unflattering light and seems to in fact praise their great, human flaws.
Dignan’s great flaw is that he has a dream that is so crushingly wrongheaded, stuck in the romanticsm of crime and finding his fulfillment in achieving that dream. The real moment in the film for me that encompasses everything great about it, is his line quoted at the top of this review, right before he gets caught by the cops. It tells the whole story of Dignan’s character in such simple terms, because he is a complete innocent. Almost everyone in this movie is. Though they break laws, each character has a basic goodness that Anderson illuminates throughout the film, never focusing on the unreality of what these characters hope to achieve. Though in the eyes of the law he may not be, he truly is. He’s more like a child unleashed, finding his purpose in the thrills of being the leader of something.
Needless to say, Owen Wilson’s Dignan character was my favorite part of the film. Owen brings such a manicness to the performance that it becomes hard to look away when he’s onscreen. His brother Luke does a serviceably fine job as the depressive Anthony but it’s a character type that Anderson returns to again and again in much better forms. In fact, Luke improves upon this performance in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but here the character feels overshadowed by the zeal of Owen’s performance.
Another common aspect of these characters to the rest of Anderson’s films is that they come from money. Though Dignan’s family and connections remain a mystery, it becomes evident that Anthony and Bob don’t need to steal because they come from families of wealth. Which brings up the interesting point of: why do it? Escape and independence seems to be key. The aimlessness of Anthony’s character leads to him always joining in Dignan’s plans. He refuses to return home because he is an adult now but he ends up rooming with Robert Musgrave’s Bob Mapplethorpe (the third of their criminal trio) and picks up menial jobs for no other reason than to keep that independence from his family. At one point, when Anthony goes into his reasons for committing himself, he talks about his former girlfriend and how he never wanted to have another conversation about water sports again. This is just the start of Anderson’s continued malaise of the wealthy class and the general unhappiness that brings. Anderson seems to revel in the melancholy and displeasure of the upper class and creates characters striving to burst out of that. It is through that that Anthony finds love in the decidedly lower class maid.
Another aspect of Anderson’s style that is used judiciously here is his great gift to marry images with music. The one sequence that immediately jumps to mind is the one where Dignan is running from the cops as the Rolling Stone’s 2000 Man plays. The sequence just works beautifully in punctuating so many of the themes and just works on a mere stylistic level but also as the last great hurrah of Wilson’s character. He has attained the status of “master criminal” and in this sense, he finds his legitimacy.
Bottle Rocket is an infant form of the ideas, themes, and style that Anderson would cultivate and form throughout his career. The great failing is that he hasn’t stretched as much as one would have hoped from this film. While he has developed each bit of his style from film to film using everything he did in Bottle Rocket, he has rarely stepped outside of that comfort box and truly done something different. That all may change soon with the release of his upcoming animated film but his films so far have stretched to their farthest point with their themes of upper class melancholy, abandonment and disappointment of father figures, and damaged characters forming makeshift families to fit their situations. Bottle Rocket has all these ideas and Anderson stylistic touches in their unrefined state but the film works because of a clever, funny script and rich characterizations. That, in the end, is what makes all of Anderson’s work so interesting. He has made an incredibly inclusive world filled with rich, interesting characters that never ring false though they often live in a world that does. What makes Bottle Rocket so great is that it was his first to populate this world and thus is the ancestor of Max Fischer and Henry Blume, the Tennenbaums of Archer Avenue, Steve Zissou, and the Whitman brothers. The cosmetics of each film are of course wildly different but the central conceit of each stems from the themes that come from this film.