Revisiting: Bottle Rocket

bottle rocket

I recently visited my charming little local cinema to see the film Moonrise Kingdom by director Wes Anderson. I eagerly await a new Anderson film like a birthday as he is responsible for creating one of my favourite films of all time, Bottle Rocket.

Over the past 15 years Anderson’s subsequent films have tended to show off his increasing distinctive visual style but have varied in their success with making an emotional connection with me. Bottle Rocket on the other hand looks exactly like a low budget, debut feature film and relies on fascinating characters, sharp-witted script writing and charm to sucker the viewer in.

Anderson, aided by his college side-kick Owen Wilson, started writing the short film that would become Bottle Rocket during their time at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I can’t imagine how on earth Anderson and Wilson pitched the movie to bigwig Hollywood executives, if you’re familiar with Bottle Rocket, I’m sure you can’t either.

At times during its 90 minutes, the film ambles along at glacial pace and features scenes and dialogue, however smart and distinctive, that don’t correlate to the progression of the story. There’s a scene when the characters buy fireworks and tear up their hometown setting them off, for no apparent reason. What emerges over time though, and a good few viewings of the film, is a charming story about friendship, blind optimism and the ability to overlook shortcomings as an unremarkable human being and dream unashamedly of doing something remarkable.

Bottle Rocket remains an unearthed gem and the ultimate word-of-mouth movie. A copy of my friend Max’s DVD was passed around so much within our friendship group that it just seemed to vanish into thin air. I like to think it is like a message in a bottle and is circulating around another friendship group in another part of the world charming everyone that sees it.

So why do I (and Martin Scorsese) think this to be one of the greatest movies of all time? I’m not even sure I will be able to justify that, but I will give it a go.

The plot focuses on the friendship between Anthony, played beautifully by Luke Wilson, and Dignan, played by Luke’s brother Owen. At the start of the film Anthony is released from a psychiatric hospital following treatment for a nervous breakdown. The charm of the movie hits you straight away as the hapless Dignan hatches an escape plot for Anthony even though we find out Anthony’s treatment is in fact voluntary. You soon realise that Anthony is the far more sane fellow in this partnership but a kind enough soul to humour Dignan in his fantastical escape plan.

We quickly meet the third main character, Dignan and Anthony’s friend Bob Mapplethorpe, played by Robert Musgrave. It is not explained to the viewer why, but Dignan and his ‘crew’ embark on a crime spree involving a heist at a local book shop and quickly flee from town. In their minds they are “on the run from Johnny Law”, however you get the impression that no one would miss these guys no matter how much money they fitted into the ridiculously small bags at the laughable book shop heist.

Owen Wilson, in his first acting role, plays the part of Dignan to perfection. Most domineering characters would be portrayed as bullies, however Dignan is just the most enthusiastic character you will probably ever encounter and the two friends seem to get swept along by his misguided ambitions.

We find out that Dignan has a connection in the crime world, the enigmatic Mr. Henry played by none other than James Caan. How the actor most famous for his portrayal of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather ended up in this low budget odyssey is a curious but genius masterstroke. Mr. Henry has the gravitas and respect from Dignan, however the viewer gets no clue during the majority of the narrative as to why the owner of a landscaping company called The Lawn Wranglers, deserves such adulation.

During the film we are also treated to the first taste of Wes Anderson’s penchant for undiscovered music from great bands. The soundtrack includes thrilling songs by The Rolling Stones, The Proclaimers and Love, while underrated artists like Rene Touzet and Oliver Onions shine in pivotal scenes.

There is a love story in the middle of all this heist shenanigans. Anthony finds love with a motel maid while the crew lay low on ‘the lam’. Luke Wilson’s character Anthony and love interest Inez, played by Lumi Cavazos, fall madly in love over the changing of bed sheets despite the fact that they don’t speak each other’s language. I don’t think I’ve seen a better portrayal of a blossoming relationship than in Bottle Rocket, certainly not in a debut indie film

After falling out on the run, Anthony and Dignan re-ignite their friendship for a big, climactic heist. I won’t spoil it for you as obviously you have to see this film now. Safe to say it’s my favourite big screen robbery of all time. The crew, including getaway driver Applejack and the mysterious safe-cracker Kumar, clad in yellow jump suits, embark on one last, ultimate and glorious job.

If you haven’t seen Bottle Rocket I urge you to search it out. If my friend Max’s copy on DVD turns up from its journey, I will even lend it to you. My whole-hearted love and affection for this quirky little film has not diminished over the years, it just gets more remarkable with repeated views.

gary page at bruce


Words by Gary Page