Bottle Rocket (1996)

Directed and co-written by Wes Anderson.

“On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland!”

Why Did I Get This?

Pretty sure I picked this up in a charity shop as part of a three for a quid offer because it was pretty much the only Wes Anderson film I hadn’t seen before The French Dispatch. I watched The Royal Tenenbaums when it came out (though I don’t own it and haven’t seen it in years), and I’ve written before about my experiences with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I think I sort of keep falling out of interest with Anderson’s films, with each trailer suggesting he’s sort of become a pastiche of himself, but my experience with The Grand Budapest Hotel suggested I shouldn’t judge a film by its trailer.

As far as the film itself, I know pretty much nothing about Bottle Rocket, other than it sort of revolves around a heist and Owen Wilson looks incredibly young, so let’s see how it plays out…

The Late Review

Dignan (Owen Wilson), is a young man who dreams of joining a local crime family led by Abe Henry (James Caan). His friend Anthony (Luke Wilson), is fresh out of a psychiatric unit and keen to reconnect with Dignan. Bob (Robert Musgrave), has a car and comes along for the ride. Following a successful robbery, the three go on the lam, and Dignan’s carefully-designed 75-year plan begins to unravel.

As far as I knew, Wes Anderson arrived on the scene with his style fully-formed – everything very neat and ordered, kitsch pastel colourings and incredibly deliberate phrasing and design. Actors used as props, almost, delivering ever so meaningful dialogue while gentle or forgotten instrumental 45s play in the background – you know the sort of thing?

That’s pretty much what I was expecting when I set out to watch Bottle Rocket, but that’s not what I got.

Sure, there are definite hints of Anderson’s later work in here – the blocky, pastel coloured title card, close-ups of hands as they turn the pages of handwritten books, a weird timeless quality to the fashions that means it’s hard to say whether it takes place in the 1950s, 1970s or 1990s. There are also some excellent lengthy shots following our lead characters through a pair of robberies (well, one robbery and one attempted robbery), which made me want to watch The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou again.

But in a lot of ways this feels like a director finding his feet. It’s scrappy and playful, filled with a boyish energy that I can’t recall seeing in his other work. A lot of that comes from Owen Wilson’s character, but as co-writer of the script, I wonder if he helped channel that into the direction too. As I recall, Owen Wilson had less of a hand in writing Anderson’s films as the years have gone by, which could account for the change, but there’s a sense of mischief and childlike energy feels like it’s been missing from the director’s later work.

Wilson’s Dignan is an interesting character too. A dreamer with a 75-year plan to rise through the local crime family without really having any street smarts, his enthusiasm is adorable, almost puppy-like. His total commitment to the plan means he frets over any slight deviation and leads the trio in celebrating a bookshop heist as if they’ve just successfully knocked over a casino.

Luke Wilson’s Anthony is optimistic and enthusiastic too, but with a more realistic tone – keen to encourage Dignan and play along with his schemes, but a little more grounded. While Dignan romanticises the outlaw life, Anthony romanticises actual romance, falling in love with a Latina maid, Inez (Lumi Cavazos), despite neither being able to speak each other’s language.

This thread is really sweet, although it begins with a shot of Cavazos’ foot that would make Tarantino squirm in his seat. Anthony follows Inez around the motel as she cleans the rooms, chatting away despite neither really being able to understand the other, then hanging out with her in the laundry room. Completely chaste, comical and sweet, it feels like a genuinely romantic undertaking so when they get together, it feels more earned than your usual ‘crooks on the run takes a tumble with a local’ movie.

Of course, they’re destined to be separated, because the third member of the gang – Robert Musgrave’s Bob – takes his car and rushes home when his brother gets arrested over Bob’s own marijuana grow. Bob sort of represents the most realistic of the trio, cynical and less optimistic than Dignan or Anthony, but keen to be part of the gang. His motives remain a little less clear than the others – he seems to desire friendship and appears curious about joining the crime family Dignan is obsessed with, but is happy to drop it all to support his family (even if it gets him a kicking from his brother).

Comedy kickings feel sort of at home in a Wes Anderson film, I guess, and Bob’s off-camera beating playing out over Anthony flirting with a girl felt really funny (doubly so by the bandages Bob’s wearing in the next scene). A later scene sees Anthony and Inez talking outside a bar while Dignan offends and gets beaten up by the fella he’s playing pool with through the window over their shoulder. It’s a nice bit of physical and audio comedy that felt to me like it was right out of The Muppets.

In fact, the more I think about that comparison the more I’d love to see this as a Muppet movie. There’s a game that regularly gets played on Twitter where film fans are asked to name a film they’d love to see remade with an entire Muppet cast save one human actor, and I think Bottle Rocket would work really well – I’d save James Caan for the human role, obviously, were he still with us.

Caan is great in this, and plays his character like no other role I’ve seen him in. I’m used to the serious, menacing Caan, not a goofy prankster who drenches guests in champagne from a rooftop or who practices his martial arts while holding meetings. He’s brilliant, and while he does still carry an air of menace in certain scenes, it’s delightful to see him play against the type I know him from so any further suggestions of Caan being un-Caany would be most welcome.

Of course, Caan’s Mr Henry isn’t exactly what he appears. Yes, he’s the head of a local crime ring, and yes, he gives the boys a heist to pull. Obviously, the heist goes wrong, but he never expects them to pull it off, instead he’s set up the whole enterprise to get them out of the way while his crew empties Bob’s parents’ palatial home of its entire contents.

So in the end, Dignan takes the rap for the heist and ends the film in prison being visited by Anthony and Bob. I’m not entirely sure whether the message is that crime doesn’t pay, or it’s important to follow your dreams because all three of them seem to appear happier from their experiences, despite everything that’s happened.

Either way, it’s a short, sweet little film and I had a lot of fun with it.


What we’re basically watching is a trio of childish men play robbers and lovers, and it’s surprisingly charming. Seeing the three of them become obsessed with the gun they buy is funny, Dignan sulking and letting off fireworks is like watching a grumpy toddler (and I found all his mannerisms during this scene reminded me a lot of James Acaster’s carefully-crafted onstage persona), Anthony’s drawing of Inez is perfect for a proud parents’ fridge door, and Owen Wilson’s prison yard delivery of “We did it though, didn’t we?”, is really sweet.

This feels like a really scrappy debut, filled with energy but lacking some of the focus of Anderson’s later work. That being said, he’s clearly taking his first steps towards his hyperstylised filmmaking with this movie.

Personally, I loved it, and like to believe there’s a lot more of the story to be told. I’m really glad it hasn’t been though, as it leaves Bottle Rocket a perfectly immature story about chasing dreams and growing up which, when I think about it, sounds a lot like one of his later movies too.

You’ve probably already seen it, but give it a go if you haven’t.

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