There's an odd feeling I get when talking about "auteur filmmakers," the ones who have developed such distinct and acclaimed styles that there's entire think pieces you could make on their camera techniques alone. But the oddness only comes into play whenever legacy comes into the mix, when that widespread acclaim and idolization overshadows a lot of the humanity and craft that got them on the map in the first place.
Wes Anderson absolutely fits into that category. Ask anyone even slightly interested in filmmaking and you will be subject to extensive tangents regarding his eccentric color palette, witty walk-and-talk dialogue, and distinctly exaggerated sense of character. That style has fascinated moviegoers for over two decades now, and I would absolutely count myself among them. I have my gripes with how he paces and frames some of his movies, but projects like 'The Royal Tenenbaums' and 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' are near-masterpieces to me and I cannot wait for his next project, 'The French Dispatch' whenever it can find a release window.
However, 25 years ago, Anderson's first feature film, 'Bottle Rocket' (based on his short film of the same name), wasn't the picturesque indie darling we're used to seeing from him. It had hints of what was to come, but audiences didn't see much in the small-scale crime dramedy, flopping at the box office even as critics were dubbing him the next big thing (including Martin Scorsese of all people).
After seeing 'Bottle Rocket' for the first time, I totally get why the film has become the cult classic it has. In a sense, it's absolutely fascinating to see what a Wes Anderson project looks like without the Wes Anderson-isms, putting a lot of the focus on just the characters and setup, and seeing where they go. Weirdly though, it only partially works because 'Bottle Rocket' winds up feeling like a heist movie that wants to be literally anything else, even if taken at face value, it's still a pretty entertaining movie.
Anthony (played by Luke Wilson) is finishing a voluntary stay at a mental health institute in Arizona when he reunites with his friend Dignan (played by Owen Wilson). Though surprised, he decides to stick with Dignan's extensive series of heist attempts to gain the attention of a local thief, Mr. Henry (played by James Caan). The two recruit their friend Bob (played by Robert Musgrave) as a getaway driver, successfully robbing a bookstore and going on the run to a small motel.
Anthony begins to forms a relationship with one of the maids, Inez (played by Lumi Cavazos), but their stay is cut short as Dignan's ambitions overwhelm his trust with Anthony. The two temporarily go their separate ways, with Anthony and Bob working a settling into local jobs before Dignan reappears. Dignan says he is now a member of Mr. Henry's crew and asks Anthony and Bob to join him on a bigger heist. Thus, tensions rise as the heist being planned, between the main trio of personalities and Mr. Henry's new crew members, all while Anthony seems more attentive elsewhere.
The interesting thing about 'Bottle Rocket' is that, somewhere around the second act, it just kind of takes a break from its setup, not actually moving the plot back into play until a while later. There's the initial heist, the team go on a run seemingly moving on, and then get dragged back in. It sets the film up to feel mundane, kind of on its own path and it does work to some degree and lot of that has to do with our main trio of personalities.
Owen and Luke Wilson (both of whom were at the start of their careers at this time) have a great back and forth with one another. Luke Wilson has kind of made a name playing straightforward normal guys and he does just fine here, giving Anthony a lot of the emotional crux of the film between his own conflict and having the central romance.
On the other hand, you have Owen Wilson who approaches Dignan as a bit of a boiling kettle, constantly aiming to prove his tough but ultimately fragile ambition. Seemingly tied in with the most urgency is Robert Musgrave's Bob, providing a bit more audience surrogacy to someone who really is just unsure as Dignan, just with more aim to him.
But remember this is still a Wes Anderson movie. The directing, the visual cues and especially the dialogue are working hard to turn this into something worth your time and, even though this is early on in his career, the writing's on the wall. For what could just be a simple wayward drama, Anderson's dialogue is trying it's hardest to be witty, confident and overemphasized in exactly the right points. The same can be said for the swooping tracking shots and the excellent production design (especially in the film's final third, foreshadowing some of the more action-oriented takes Anderson would go on to explore).
The problem is you can tell this is a debut and specifically the debut of someone as particular as Anderson. As such, a lot of the story can feel pressed for time and really starts to feel crowded around that aforementioned middle of the film. It's not even to say that this portion is bad - far from it, it can be argued as the film's emotional center - but it makes the pacing feel like a complete mess, like a rubber band snapping back to regressions that we should have moved on from.
Why do we go back to vying for James Caan's Mr. Henry after all that time trying to cool down and find purpose? Maybe that's the message the movie is actually trying to go for; that avoid it as you may try, crime is still appealing and can drag seemingly innocent people into the temptation. That's really interesting, and I wish the film actually took more time to dive into that, instead of locking in on another one of Dignan's foolhardy rants or trying to give Bob the character precedence Anderson clearly wants us to feel for him.
'Bottle Rocket' is fascinating, if not sometimes infuriating. It's a project that Wes Anderson's devoted followers will cite as a misconstrued gem, blindly tossed aside by the establishment. Yet I can't help but feel slightly distant from this movie, especially in the hindsight of the other films I've seen from him.
It certainly has character to it, with the actors clearly doing their best to work with unrefined particulars, loads of quotable moments and a killer soundtrack, but the subtle weight and complexity that I've seen Wes Anderson tackle just doesn't present itself here. I can't say it's the same level of genius Martin Scorsese saw, but I can certainly appreciate the fun I did have with the end result. We don't get 'The Royal Tenenbaums,' 'The Grand Budapest Hotel,' or any of the sort without 'Bottle Rocket' to light the fuse, and while it's a messy show, it's one worth seeing just for that craft alone.
Overall, I give 'Bottle Rocket' 7/10
'Bottle Rocket' is currently available for rent on VOD, including iTunes, Apple TV+ and Google Play.
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