REVIEW: Bottle Rocket [1994]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 13 minutes | Release Date: 1994 (USA)
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Writer(s): Owen Wilson & Wes Anderson

“It has the logic of a dream”

The career of writer/director Wes Anderson begins with his University of Texas at Austin buddy Owen Wilson and their 13-minute short film Bottle Rocket. Screened at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, it tells the story of two friends and their aspiration towards crime. Dignan (Owen) and Anthony (Luke Wilson) are by no means masterminds when it comes to their almost non-existent scores, but they enjoy the rush and feel as though it’s a path worth taking if success comes as easily as it seems. And as their confidence rises, so too does their ignorance towards the danger. They recruit another low-level amateur hoodlum in their sleepy suburban neighborhood (Robert Musgrave’s Bob), inquire about buying a gun for protection, and hatch their “foolproof” plan to rob a bookstore despite being the epitome of fools.

There are definite moments that hint at the highly stylized aesthetic which has made Anderson a love him or hate him auteur whether the carefully composed dialogue hiding dryly delivered punch lines or static camera shots of bookshelves and coin collections to put a sterile faces with the descriptive words narrated above. The black and white work eventually spawned a feature length version that truly jumpstarted both his and Owen’s careers, but this is an intriguing bit of history itself to watch as they go through the motions of figuring out what filmmaking entails. The length obviously hurts the narrative with multiple abrupt jump cuts and the glossing over of action for Quentin Tarantino-esque dialogue-heavy aftermaths, yet there is still the promise of greatness if only certain aspects could be tightened along the way.

The Wilson brothers show their brilliant rapport in its infancy with rough around the edges ego juxtaposing against effusive joy at a job well done. Owen’s Dignan is the screw-up who is wont to forget details in his excitement and Luke’s Anthony is the serious one who makes decisions in the hopes of following them without any in-the-moment improvisation. Their dynamic is only made more entertaining with Musgrave’s addition as his paranoid pot grower can’t stop getting distracted when not unfazed and forlorn about his boring life. You know it will only take one or two more jobs before their cavalier attitude and hubris place them in a situation they cannot control, but watching them bumble through these successes lets the payoff become our imagining their inevitable incredulous astonishment once the other shoe does drop.

Despite that, however, Bottle Rocket ultimately overflows with too many quirky bits doing little for the overall whole. Watching Owen and Luke race during the end credits is funny and goes into their banality and penchant for underestimating the consequences of their actions, but it’s placement ill-serves that purpose by merely becoming an extra laugh they couldn’t fit elsewhere. Add the “Starsky and Hutch” quips from the start, the out-of-place gun shooting interlude, and a game of pinball and you can see how Anderson still has needs some polish. He obviously gets there a couple short years later, so in that respect this short is paramount to his evolution. On its own, though, I’m not sure there’s much to hold onto that the feature version doesn’t also possess with better results.

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