Wes Anderson came out of the gate with an incredible eye for comedy. The now-iconic director caught the eye of James L. Brooks thanks to his short film collaboration with Luke and Owen Wilson. Soon after, the Wes Anderson train left the station, taking all three to new heights as stars. Yet Bottle Rocket works as far more than a debut. The heartfelt and emotionally resonant film about friendship continues to grow as one of the best debuts of the last thirty years.
After having a mental breakdown, Anthony (Luke Wilson) is “broken” out of a psych ward by his best friend, Dignan (Owen Wilson). The two begin a series of small heists. With the help of their third friend Bob (Robert Musgrave), they hope to impress a small-time crime boss Mr. Henry (James Caan). However, after a small heist results in them hiding at a local hotel, Anthony falls for the local housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos). Dignan and Anthony begin to want different things out of life, and the resulting differences create a rift in their friendship.
It’s no wonder that Brooks became so intrigued. Anderson proved adept at handling high-level comedy from the word go. Working with the Wilsons, including their third brother Andrew Wilson, makes Bottle Rocket a family affair. Yet rather than rely on that bond to connect the three characters, they are written as friends. The core relationship between Anthony and Dignan becomes the film’s emotional heart. Yet simultaneously, we watch the two men find their purpose in different worlds. Bottle Rocket confronts the truth every man must face at some point: some of their friends do not fit their current lives.
Anderson quickly establishes his visual eccentricities, even without the tweed sensibility that has defined his career. The blocking and use of color are outstanding. The blues of the pool in the night become luminous, while the placement of characters in-frame helps signal the changing relationships. An advanced visual storyteller from the word go, Anderson crafts a story that owes immense gratitude to 1970s crime. The casting of Caan as a loveable but ultimately devious crime boss proves his deference to the era.
In many ways, the Dignan character serves as a stand-in for Wes. Shepherded into his first big film by industry icons, Anderson seems desperate to prove his worth. Along the way, he finds the perfect collaborators out of the gate, and as a result, they celebrate smaller successes.
At the same time, it becomes a prophetic work about their friendship and future work relationships. The small moments that make the trio gel in the first place begin to shift as fame comes to each man. The trio works well together for this moment, but the collaborations have become more infrequent over the past decade. While Owen continues to appear in minor roles, Anderson has moved on to a new series of frequent collaborators. Post-Darjeeling, the gang would mostly go their separate ways. Dignan, Anthony, and Bob will never lose their connection, but life pulled them apart as they found new aspects of life to explore.
It’s easier to look at Bottle Rocket as a time capsule in 2023. Yet even at the time, it felt ambitious to create a crime caper outside of the darkness that existed in American cinema. The Tarantino, Coen, and Ritchie styles had taken over the genre. Why would something appear so quaint and sincere when nihilistic madness drove the genre? In that regard, Anderson proves his true allegiance to comedy and his vision. Stepping out of the confines where the genre was heading, and establishing his own path, became an integral part of Anderson’s future. From the first frames of Bottle Rocket, that confidence is apparent.
While Bottle Rocket will not feature the stunning production design of his future films, it more than showcases Anderson’s visual talent. Combined with an excellent comedic score and heart-warming dialogue, it’s a joyous debut. Bottle Rocket delivers an improvisational feel that few other films can capture. For an artisan so particular in his visual and emotional tone, it’s incredible to feel so free in his hands.