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Wes Anderson’s first feature, Bottle Rocket (1996), is a revealing preview of things to come. All of the hallmarks we have come to expect and cherish in Anderson’s films – the meticulous framing and visual composition, the quirky characters on earnest if ill-advised missions, the delightful and sharply comic dialogue, the soundtrack that is never obvious and often spot-on – are all here to some degree. That said, this is the starting point of a career and the movie is clearly affected by low budget constraints, feeling like a lighter and more playful Reservoir Dogs (1992) at times. Anderson may not have had the production values at this point, but he certainly had a cinematic eye, and a knack for creating incredibly specific characters who are occupying very particular worlds that never fail to ignite the imagination.
Luke and Owen Wilson got their start on this movie, both turning in strong performances (aided by the natural chemistry) as the friends Anthony (Luke) and Dignan (Owen), two would be criminals who are clearly ill-suited for the occupation. The story follows their time together on the road, after Anthony’s departure from a voluntary psychiatric unit in Arizona. As a quick aside, it’s interesting how mental illness impacts a number of Anderson’s characters. The subject of their mental health may not be probed too deeply in the stories, but it is clearly stated as an aspect of their lives, and the fact that it is present in the story helps to orient the audience and acclimate us to the characters’ experience. Bottle Rocket’s story follows the criminal misadventures of the brothers, from one heist to the next, taking an endearing romantic interlude when Anthony meets the housekeeper of a hotel, Inez (Lumi Cavazos). James Caan of The Godfather fame registers a silly cameo here as the leader of a landscaping company / gang who is also, incidentally, a martial artist. The plot is quintessential Anderson; absurdly and hilariously complex at times, driven by the character’s idiosyncrasies and emotional journeys.
One of the funniest moments in the film is when Dignan, Anthony and their partner rob a book store (a hilarious notion in itself). While the robbery is in process, they are basically mocked by one of the employees of the store who is clearly unthreatened by their presence. This is a great early example of how Anderson plays around with tone, often inserting comic dialogue in the midst of an otherwise tense scene. Another technique that Anderson has used to great effect over the years is providing the audience solitary, intimate and revealing moments with key characters. This is sometimes achieved through tight close ups on the characters, creating a moment of stillness and reflection amidst the background chaos. This happens in Bottle Rocket during an early heist, when we see Anthony stop to take a moment to adjust a figurine in the house. It’s an early indication that Anthony is perhaps not as invested and focused on this heist business as his brother.
If you’re coming across Wes Anderson by way of Bottle Rocket, I would recommend first watching one of his masterpieces – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic (2004), Rushmore (1998) – and then coming back to this one. It’s more rewarding to experience the genius and then see where it all started as opposed to the other way around. No matter how you come to it, you’ll leave happy. There is something singular about Wes Anderson movies. They present us with worlds too orderly and beautifully arranged for reality, full of charmingly crazy and yet relatable characters. We leave these movies with a very real sense of having shared a journey and established a bond.