This is the first in a short series of posts on directors’ first films—films often overshadowed by the blockbusters that come after them but that catch their makers at an important stage of evolution while providing plenty delights of their own.
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Wes Anderson’s latest film, the charming and energetic Grand Budapest Hotel, begins by pushing backwards into the past: from the present day to 1985 to 1968 to 1932. In that same spirit, I would like to put Budapest aside and travel back to 1996, the year of Anderson’s feature film debut, Bottle Rocket.
Developed from a 12-minute black and white short of the same name—co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, who had been students together at the University of Texas at Austin—Bottle Rocket introduces us to Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (a crew-cut Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave), three friends seeking adventure—and meaning, maybe—in a hilarious life of crime. Hilarious because as a couple of rich kids beset by ennui (Anthony and Bob) and one over-enthusiastic dreamer (Dignan), the trio of bandits are blundering at best.
Not long after Anthony’s release from a voluntary psychiatric hospital, the friends somehow pull off a bookstore robbery: “Do you have bigger bags for atlases or dictionaries, sir?” Dignan asks, frustrated by how little cash the bookstore’s comically small bags can hold, but tamed, too, having been chastised for calling the manager an idiot. Next the three decide to lie low in a roadside motel. From there things change directions: after his brother (played by a third Wilson, Andrew) is arrested because of the marijuana plants Bob has been growing at their parents’ house, Bob drives home in the middle of the night (“Bob’s gone!” Dignan cries the next morning. “He stole his car!”). Anthony falls in love with Inez, a South American woman who works as a housekeeper at the motel (“Which part of Mexico are you from?” he asks. “Paraguay.”), triggering a sequence of scenes and montages that both details their courtship and constitutes much of the middle of the movie. Finally, heading home in a stolen car (“What a lemon!”), Dignan loses his cool upon learning that Anthony has given Inez $500, the last of their robbery money.
The film shifts again as Dignan leaves for his turn in the psychiatric hospital and Anthony moves in with Bob. But not long after Dignan returns—clad in a banana-yellow jumpsuit—the three, with the help of Dignan’s roughneck mentor Mr. Henry (James Caan) and the Lawn Wranglers, Mr. Henry’s unlikely crew of landscaper-thugs (“Just because it’s a front doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t have to do the actual landscaping”), set out on their greatest heist yet: the Hinckley cold storage facility. Predictably and laughably, things go awry. Dignan winds up in jail, where, at the end of the film, Anthony and Bob visit him. “Isn’t it funny,” Dignan asks, “that you used to be in the nuthouse, and now I’m in jail?”
From nuthouse to jail—if the plot is lumpy in places or seems to cohere only tenuously, it’s a reflection of the friends’ unsuitability as criminals. In this way the film does the more important and lasting work of constructing its characters’ emotional realities. These realities, this world, like many of Wes Anderson’s cinematic worlds, comprise an exciting combination of high and low, levity and gravity, humor and tenderness. And as in many films I admire, Bottle Rocket’s opening scene provides a wonderful encapsulation of its dynamic range.
Though set in Texas, the film begins in Arizona, where Anthony has admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital for what he terms “exhaustion.” We see him packing his bags in his second-floor room while outside Dignan crouches behinds some bushes, making bird calls, flashing sunlight off a mirror, and peering through binoculars. Not understanding that the hospital is voluntary, he’s here to help Anthony make his “escape.” When Anthony’s doctor comes in to help him with his bags, he sees the rope of sheets Anthony has tied to the bedpost and hung out the window. “What’s—what’s this? What’s going on?” he asks, annoyed. Anthony explains: “Well, see, my friend Dignan didn’t realize that this was a voluntary hospital, and he got this whole escape thing worked out, and he just got so excited about the thing—I didn’t have the heart to tell him, uh, that, uh… Look how excited he is. I got to do it this way, Dr. Nichols, I gotta climb down.” Anthony descends out the window and reunites with Dignan, who looks back at the hospital and sees the sheets being pulled back up into the room—by the doctor, out of view. “Wait, who’d you get to do that?” he asks. “Did you bribe the janitor? Smart, smart!”
Even while I laugh at Dignan, I’m touched by Anthony’s care for his friend, a care that sustains the film both narratively, as Anthony continually indulges Dignan’s wild schemes, and emotionally. In another scene, in the backyard of Bob’s parents’ deluxe modern ranch, Anthony explains how he ended up in the psychiatric unit: “One morning, over at Elizabeth’s beach house,” he says, “she asked me if I’d rather go water-skiing or lay out, and I realized did I not only not want to answer that question, but I realized I never wanted to answer another watersports question, or see any of these people again for the rest of my life. Three days later I was on my way out to the desert, and that was that.” The comic absurdity of this explanation—“watersports question”—at the same time points to the exhausting absurdity of these people, this life, as Anthony suggests.
This blend of comedy and drama isn’t the only recurring feature of Anderson’s work to originate in Bottle Rocket—we also have the Wilson brothers, a photo of Jacques Cousteau, and, as Martin Scorsese points out, some really great music. But the film stands apart from the director’s more ornate, zany, and polished offerings, no matter what the designers at Criterion would have you believe (compare the early movie poster above with the 2008 retrofit). Many debut films, of course, lack the scale, confidence, and finesse of their more popular younger siblings, but the effect of Bottle Rocket’s amateur-ity (so to speak, and not to be confused with “immaturity”) is a kind of urgency and honesty I sometimes find missing, despite their masterful overabundance, from films like The Grand Budapest Hotel.