In 1992, Wes Anderson made a short film called Bottle Rocket starring his old college room mate Owen Wilson and his brother Luke Wilson. In 1994, Anderson’s short film was shown at Sundance. In 1996, the feature length version of this short film was released to theaters to terrible box office results but great critical acclaim. It was Anderson’s, Owen’s, and Luke’s feature film debut, and was the start of a unique and fantastic career for one of America’s greatest filmmakers. It was also, of course, the launching pad for the Wilson brothers.
The film stars Luke Wilson as Anthony Adams, a man who’s checking him self out of a mental institution (he checked in for “exhaustion”) and is ready to get back out into the world with his friend Dignan, played by Owen Wilson. Dignan is the kind of man who acts like he should be in a mental institution: he has a strange personality but an optimistic attitude, and is extremely meticulous when it comes to just about anything and everything. Both these characters plan to be big time thieves (for whatever reason) and Dignan’s the man with the plan(s); they decide, with the help of their rich friend Bob Mapplethorpe (played by Robert Musgrave), to rob a bookstore, get out of town, and go on the lam. After the heat cools down, Dignan plans to call an old employer of his, Mr. Henry (played by James Caan), who is apparently a great thief himself, so they can work with him. This is the basic premise of the film, but it goes through some notable changes.
The acting involved is surprisingly excellent by everyone (even Shea Fowler as Anthony’s sister is terrific). The man who steals the show (unsurprisingly) is O. Wilson and Dignan, who just has so much energy and charisma. Luke plays it cool while Robert plays it nervous. The Wilson’s older brother Andrew even gets a role in this film as Bob’s older brother (known as Future Man). Lumi Cavazos plays Inez, Anthony’s love interest, who is very sweet and believable in her role. As for Caan, he is really fun as Mr. Henry.
Even though it’s only his first film, the trademarks Anderson would use in his later films are apparent or alluded to in Bottle Rocket: excellent dialogue, ever changing plot, primary colors, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Kumar Pallana, slow-mo endings, smoking, close-ups on writings or objects, rich people, hour-and-a-half running time, The Rolling Stones, etc. Another trademark is Mark Mothersbaugh as composer; his soundtrack for the film is excellent, using very few instruments to deliver a unique sound. The film is also presented in a 1.85:1 matted widescreen, a film ratio Anderson would rarely revisit in his later films (this was, after all, his first movie). On that note, it’s incredibly fascinating to see that a major studio (Columbia Pictures) released this film, featuring (then) unknown actors and a film director with a B.A. in Philosophy. Then again, this was a Gracie Films production, and the short film could’ve made a huge impression on the producers.
Something I’d like to note are the colors in this film. As previously stated, primary colors are one of Anderson’s biggest trademarks, and they play a huge role in establishing this film’s tone. When the film first begins, everything is very bright, with the colors all being noticeable, even if they aren’t particularly primary. As the film goes on, the colors and the brightness begin to fade, and by the time we are at the final scene, the colors have faded and are no longer bright as they were at the start of the film. In that sense, the colors and brightness express the film’s tone, which arguably goes from optimistic to melancholy. Another thing to note is the film’s editing, which is much quicker and urgent then it would be in Anderson’s later films; however, the film benefits greatly from its fast editing.
Bottle Rocket is an excellent film from everyone involved, never mind that it was Anderson and the Wilson’s debut feature. It’s a movie that has continued to stay unique over the years while maintaining appeal and originality. It has plenty of the signature Anderson touches audiences would come to love and features excellent performances from the cast – especially Owen, which would foreshadow his career in movies. From the music to the scenery, from the direction to the dialogue, from the characters to the editing, Bottle Rocket is a great example of film making at its most pure and basic.