‘Bottle Rocket’ at 25: Re-Appraising Wes Anderson’s Zany Debut

bottle rocket wes anderson 25th anniversary

When Bottle Rocket hit cinemas 25 years ago, Wes Anderson was an unknown 27-year-old. Now, he’s a household name. What happened in-between?

Envisioning the current film landscape without Wes Anderson is a difficult thing to do. The director has had a long, illustrious career, with his signature style known to many and his established aesthetic transcending the screen and seeping into culture itself. Now anything can be described as ‘a bit Wes Anderson’: fashion, interior design, even existing buildings and objects. He’s also become an easy target for countless parodies along the way.

Twenty five years ago this month, the director kick-started his career with the release of his first feature, Bottle Rocket. He developed the script from his short film of the same name, released a few years prior and co-written with friend Owen Wilson. Bottle Rocket is an oddity within his filmography, but one with many hints at the visual vision the director is known for today.

When you think of a Wes Anderson film, you think of inimitable levels of perfection in just about every aspect of filmmaking. He presents us with intricate set designs and vibrant colour palettes, as well as an array of interesting camera movements. Throughout the years, his style has undoubtedly become more refined, particularly when it comes to technique. Rewatching Bottle Rocket retrospectively is interesting, then, as the first thing you notice is that it lacks that refinement. If you’re a fan of Anderson’s work though, it serves as a prelude to what would go on to become an absorbing body of work. 

In this light-hearted crime caper, the narrative is a modest one. We follow Dignan and Anthony (Owen and Luke Wilson), two friends adrift in life with a dream of becoming small time crooks. There are a handful of misadventures as they attempt to catch the attention of professional crook Mr Henry. Aside from the chaotic ending heist, the film lacks the hilarity and charisma normally expected from an Anderson film. Shoehorned in is also an uncomfortable romance between Anthony and Inez, a Hispanic housemaid. Anderson’s characters have always had an air of immaturity and impulsivity about them, and it is the same here. Though, admittedly Owen Wilson’s charm makes the arrogance of Dignan somewhat palatable.

When pitted against the other films in his filmography, it feels like the biggest outlier. At the time of Bottle Rocket‘s release, a ‘Wes Anderson film’ had not become synonymous with all the elements you might think of today. In fact, the film has more in common with the post-Tarantino copycats of the mid 90s. In the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, there were several indie films that relied on the narrative of bungled heists. Like Bottle Rocket, these films would include an infusion of pop-culture references, idiosyncratic dialogue as well as retro soundtracks: think 2 Days in the Valley (1996), The Big Hit, (1998), 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997) and Go (1999). If Anderson hadn’t followed up with the charming breakout Rushmore, perhaps Bottle Rocket might have got lost among all those other films. 

Although his artistic aesthetic was still forming, there are elements of his now-recognizable style within Bottle Rocket—a hint at what was to come. It still feels like an Anderson film of sorts: characters break the fourth wall, ridiculous one-liners abound, costuming choices are notable. What is mostly interesting throughout is the air of mischievous innocence and childlike malaise that has come to define his work. This is showcased with Dignan’s character and his mission to make it as a criminal, a dream driven by juvenile fantasies. Having knowledge of Anderson’s trajectory and his subsequent filmmaking certainly makes the experience of rewatching Bottle Rocket richer. However, as a standalone offbeat comedy, the film is missing an identity. It never feels like it goes far enough in the direction it wants to take.  Although certainly not a complete measure of success, the film’s poor showing at the box office reflects the inability to connect with audiences.

It seems that even someone with such an ironclad style today still had to start somewhere. Bottle Rocket‘s transitions between screwball comedy, crime caper and romance leave the narrative clustered. Anderson’s appeal isn’t down to one individual feature he’s known, for but rather the alliance and synergy of all of them put together: his ability to blend composition, colour, dialogue and story. While the bare bones of the director we know are here, it’s difficult to watch and enjoy knowing he can do everything he’s doing here better. The distinctive awkward nature of his characters and dialogue demand a world of their own to live in and without his visual signature, it feels odd. Out of all his films, this one seems like the only one set in our world, giving it an off-putting incongruity.

After Bottle Rocket, Anderson went on to have an extraordinary run of releases. Rushmore truly jump-started his career and ever since, Anderson would improve in terms of formal technique and artistry. The blocking and camerawork he achieves with longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman cannot be understated. The release of his stop-motion animation film Fantastic Mr Fox was yet another example of his many technical feats. For Moonrise Kingdom he used Super 16 film and experimented with camera aperture to achieve a flatter perspective style—almost theatrical in presentation—which he would go on to use in The Grand Budapest Hotel too. Beyond technicality, the screenwriting from Bottle Rocket to his last few films has matured and there is much more cohesion. Wes Anderson proves that even when opting for maximalism, there can still be room for heart, melancholy and whimsy within the narrative. Despite the zaniness, the style serves a larger function that supports the storytelling.

Perhaps what was missing with Bottle Rocket was freedom and budget. With the success he has now acquired, he’s able to create worlds that thrive off of characters’ eccentricities, allowing improbable storylines to thrive. Though his style is now so recognisable that there has been a criticism of staleness, there’s certainly evidence that Anderson continues to grow and evolve, while retaining the qualities that made him likeable in the first place. While flawed, Bottle Rocket features some of his trademark offbeat charms and shows his promise even as a young director. His passion and originality continues to shine, 25 years on.

Words by Warren Bradley

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