Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s first feature film, follows two friends as they plan a small-time robbery. Dignan (Owen Wilson) is the mastermind of the plan while Anthony (Like Wilson) seems more like he’s just indulging Dignan’s fantasy.
In the first scene of the film, Dignan helps Anthony escape from a mental hospital, and Anthony doesn’t want to tell him that it was a voluntary stay. “Look how excited he is,” Anthony tells someone.
Along with a third person, Bob, the friends rob a bookstore and go on the run. They stay at a small motel in the middle of nowhere, and Anthony meets and falls for a housekeeper named Inez.
Bob, who owns the car, leaves them stranded at the motel when he has to return home for personal reasons, and Dignan and Anthony’s relationship begins to strain under the stress of Dignan’s carefully-constructed plan falling apart. Things get worse between them when Anthony gives almost all of the stolen money to Inez. After that the brothers go their separate ways.
Anthony turns away from a life of crime and works a series of odd jobs alongside Bob. He claims to have found a level of comfort in this unexciting life. Dignan, meanwhile, hasn’t let go of his robbery dreams and eventually tracks Anthony down, trying to recruit him to a bigger team of thieves.
Together again, they all conduct an ill-fated robbery that yields nothing except for Dignan’s arrest. At the end of the film, Anthony and Bob visit Dignan in prison, and Dignan is surprisingly upbeat, thankful for the experience they had. “We really did it,” he admires.
Bob reveals that Mr. Henry, a man Dignan was working for, was never really on their side and stole all of Bob’s possessions. Still, they are not down. Bob reflects that because of this loss he has grown closer with his brother, just like Anthony and Dignan have. Before Bob and Anthony leave, Dignan remarks how funny it is that first Anthony was locked up (thought not really) and now Dignan is.
The story seems to treat all of these characters gently, and they treat each other gently. Anthony is soft-spoken, and Dignan has wild fantasies like that of a child. When he presents Anthony with his 5 year/10 year/25 year/50 year plan, it’s written in a notebook in different color marker, like that of a middle school kid. It all seems very silly right off the bat, but Dignan is committed to it. He’s also committed to his friend, first believing himself to be aiding his escape from the hospital and then trying to cut him in on this robbery.
Anthony is similarly helpful with Dignan. He indulges in his fantasies like an older brother, just playing along.
The whole story is more about their relationships than the actual plan, and the plan never seems destined to work anyways. It’s comic in its failure, particularly after all the lengths Dignan goes to to make it work (matching jumpsuits, walkie talkies). The real failure, though, is that Dignan was betrayed (and Bob too) by Mr. Henry. Dignan is a trusting guy, and even though he’s let down, he never seems to feel the pain, mainly since he has rebuilt his friendship with Anthony and Bob. He even makes matching badges for them to wear.
Even Anthony and Inez’s relationship has a childlike quality to it. Because Inez can hardly speak English, they communicate mostly silently. It’s like they are discovering each other much in the same way a child discovers the world. They softly caress each other’s faces, comparing hers to silk and his to sandpaper. It just feels like a grade school classroom, learning very simple things at a comfortable pace.
So of course Anthony decides he loves her. On one hand he could be jumping ahead dramatically, but their affection feels so pure and untouched by the real world. Part of that is because they meet at this motel in the middle of nowhere that might as well be in a bubble. In this sequence of the movie, that motel bubble is the entire world. It’s like nothing exists outside of it.
Anthony has also reconstructed his own life by the time the movie starts. He volunteered to be put into a mental hospital because, as he tells someone early on, he just lost all motivation to do anything. It sounds like he had a nice life with a nice girl, but he threw it away because he could feel nothing. Now he is rediscovering the world and feeling everything.
We also get the impression that Anthony’s family has distanced itself from him. He visits his young sister early in the film, and she has lied to her friends about where he’s been, claiming that he’s a pilot. In this interaction, she has the power, despite being way younger than Anthony. They talk as equals, and that only helps portray both of these characters as children.
So through a possible loss of family (Anthony and Dignan do steal from Anthony’s parents’ house after all), Anthony is constructing his own family, one that involves Inez as well as Bob and Dignan.
There are a lot of close ups in this movie. In that scene between Anthony and his sister, the camera hovers over Anthony’s shoulder, looking down at her. It’s so close to him that he has to brush his hair out of the way for her to be visible.
To be honest, I don’t know what to make of these shots. Anderson is famous for the look of his movies, with their incredibly balanced shots, and calculated camera movements, so I know he’s trying to say something with these shots.
A shot like this is claustrophobic, and we’re pressed closed to the action. It can be seen as forcing these two characters together, like someone else is forcing them to be there. And maybe that’s because as a family there is nothing holding Anthony and his sister (and by extension his family) together. He’s forcing it right now, but they’ve let go of him. She doesn’t want to seem to be there.
In other shots, there is more of that trademark Anderson balance, and it’s clear that the character placement in each shot is incredibly important and thought out.
In a way, each character is just looking for balance or some kind of comfort. Once they find it, the shot is more balanced. This is speculation, I don’t know for sure. I do know that there is a shot/reverse-shot sequence of Dignan and Anthony taking, and each character is on the wrong side of the frame, so that if you were to overlay each shot over the other, they would be looking away from each other. It establishes a lack of agreement and that something’ unsettled.
There is also a lot going on in many of the shots. In one scene you have Anthony and Inez sitting in front of a bar, and through the window we see Dignan getting into a fight, but Anthony and Inez do not notice.
So Anderson is a talented director, and his shots are all carefully constructed. That we know, but I’m still trying to figure out what that says about his movies and perhaps his worldview. That style has a way of making the story feel less like something that happens in our world. In a way it feels like a comic book, the way each scene is staged, and many of the images feel like a painting.
I imagine a lot of his movies and particular scenes will be more remembered years from now because you can gleam so much from a single shot. They exist on their own.