“I don’t think any of us are normal people.” – Wes Anderson
American filmmaker Wes Anderson has established himself as one of the most unique artistic voices in the world right now. His signature has become an instantly recognisable brand of storytelling, complemented by arresting visual narratives that successfully redefine the conventions of the cinematic medium. Anderson has gone on to create masterpieces like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but his 1996 debut feature Bottle Rocket exists before the auteur metamorphosed into the Wes Anderson we are familiar with.
Based on an eponymous 13-minute short film that Anderson directed in 1992, Bottle Rocket is a crime comedy film that marks the beginning of Anderson’s collaboration with two of his perpetual colleagues: Luke and Owen Wilson. The filmmaker met Owen Wilson at the University of Texas where they came up with the idea for the film together, bringing Owen’s brother Luke onboard as well. Although they received support from big directors like James L. Brooks – who facilitated the opportunity of getting funding from Columbia Pictures – Bottle Rocket bombed at the box office and failed to resonate with the audiences. In an interview, Anderson stated that he was the most confident he had ever been in his life while making the film because he believed that they were creating something truly hilarious and magical. However, that belief wavered and dissipated when the film was finally screened. He recalled: “Afterwards, we had the audience [reaction] cards [which had comments like] – SUCKD.” At one point, Owen Wilson even considered signing up for the Marines because he thought it was the end of the line for him.
Following Anderson’s meteoric rise to the top of the industry, audiences have revisited Bottle Rocket and it all kind of makes sense now. There’s no doubt that Anderson’s debut is not as polished as his later works but the film is important for what it is: a riveting precursor to Wes Anderson’s spellbinding artistic achievements. Bottle Rocket revolves around the friendship of the disillusioned Anthony (played by Luke Wilson) and the neurotic Dignan (Owen Wilson). From the opening scene itself, we get a sense of what the dynamics are. Anderson shows us a staged escape from a voluntary mental hospital, orchestrated by Anthony who does not have the heart to tell Dignan that reality isn’t as thrilling as fiction. This is the central conflict that perpetuates itself throughout the film as Dignan plans and dreams of one heist after another while trying to sustain his delusions of grandeur. Anthony and their rich friend Bob join him for the ride just because they have nothing better to do with their empty lives.
The film does not share Dignan’s pretensions which transforms the subject matter into what might be one of the most hilariously subversive heist films of all time. Anyone who is familiar with Anderson’s illustrious oeuvre can observe his characteristic camera flourishes, the case studies of obsessive and quirky characters and the bathetic resolutions of cinematic anxiety to great comic effect. Instead of high-profile targets, we see the formidable trio bungling their way through robberies of lacklustre places like a bookstore and a cold storage facility. On top of that, the first “heist” that we see them participate in is a sham robbery of Anthony’s own house. This is primarily because Bottle Rocket does not focus on the glamour of the heist film but the psychological constitutions of its characters. It constantly reminds us that the criminals deserve more attention than the crime. Contrary to Quentin Tarantino’s pornographic indulgence in cinematic violence, Anderson’s depictions of violence are absurd and impotent. They come across as infantile tantrums, as if the camera is laughing at the plight of grown men resorting to primitive behaviour.
Tired of his bourgeois lifestyle where the superficial girls can only talk about meaningless things, Anthony falls in love with Inez: a motel housekeeper from Paraguay who cannot converse in English. Just like Anderson transcends the language barrier by conveying things visually, Anthony and Inez form a deeply human connection without feeling the need to hurl words at each other until they find a translator who desperately tries to keep up with them. Even though most of it is lost in translation, the language of love is universal and it ultimately makes itself legible. Anthony is probably the only one of the three who makes it out in a relatively unscathed manner because Dignan ends up in prison and Bob has his house robbed by Dignan’s mentor who sent him on a futile mission. When the two of them come to visit him in the prison compound, they come to a laughable consensus: “We did it alright.”
Bottle Rocket is definitely an under-appreciated gem in Anderson’s filmography because it shoulders the tragic burden of being compared to Anderson’s later brilliancies. Despite its shortcomings, Anderson’s debut remains an essential work by a modern master who was trying to find his voice.