The Wes Dispatch #1 – Crime, Friendship and Belonging in ‘Bottle Rocket’ (1996)

Stick on a British Invasion record, meticulously organise your possessions and grab a Courtesan au Chocolat from Mendel’s, The Wes Dispatch is Flip Screen’s tri-weekly column dedicated solely to the pastel-coloured world of Wes Anderson. Every three weeks we’ll be taking a deep dive into the Texan auteur’s weird and wonderful filmography to count down to the release of his tenth feature – The French Dispatch.

“On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”

In many ways, the story behind Wes Anderson’s 1996 directorial debut Bottle Rocket could be taken straight from one of his own films. It would begin with his chance encounter with the film’s eventual co-writer and star Owen Wilson in a playwriting class at the University of Texas. After bonding over their shared love of directors like Martin Scorsese and their ambition to make films they would soon move into an apartment that would serve as the inspiration for their first short film. 

During their cohabitation, the pair became increasingly frustrated with their landlord’s refusal to fix their apartment’s broken windows which led them to stage their own mock break-in. In retrospectively typical Andersonian fashion, their scheme failed catastrophically and later resulted in the pair being forced to flee the apartment under the cover of darkness before being hunted down by the landlord’s private investigator. However, the botched criminal enterprise clearly made its mark on the pair as it became the basis of their 1994 black-and-white short Bottle Rocket which was later adapted into their 1996 feature film of the same name. 

To people who are only fleetingly familiar with his latter career, the idea of an Anderson-directed heist film probably seems unfortunately predictable, conjuring up images of a quaint Ocean’s 11, in which a mismatched group of renegades with bizarre and often mysterious backgrounds steal a highly sentimental knick-knack from a pastel vault to the melodic tones of The Kinks. However, despite displaying some of the first signs of his distinctive visual style, thematically Bottle Rocket is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography. The film is far from the quaintness of films like Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom and instead delivers a thoughtful blend of tragedy and comedy to provide a nuanced look at friendship, delusion and the romance of a criminal lifestyle. 

Screencapture from Bottle Rocket. Three men sit in a car.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Bottle Rocket’s central character is Dignan (Wilson), an idealistic twenty-something obsessed with becoming a criminal mastermind. To achieve this goal, he devises a 75-year plan, which includes a series of increasingly convoluted and fantastical heists. Alongside Dignan is his long-suffering friend Anthony (Luke Wilson), who inexplicably indulges his nonsensical fantasies. For example, the film opens with Dignan helping his friend ‘escape’ the voluntary psychiatric facility which he is clearly leaving of his own volition, even going as far as placating him by abseiling out of the window down a bed sheet rope instead of using the front door.  

The pair are joined on their crime spree by getaway driver Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), a man who they chose purely because he is the only person they know who owns a car. This level of absurdity continues throughout the film with Dignan’s child-like actions totally at odds with his limited knowledge of crime, which is itself entirely informed by popular culture. 

This is mostly clearly shown following the trio’s first, and only, successful heist. During the getaway Dignan goes to great lengths to explain the importance of “going on the lam” to evade the authorities. However, instead of fleeing the state, they decide to stop off at a firework stall and celebrate by firing an assortment of the film’s eponymous bottle rockets into the sky. 

Screencapture from Bottle Rocket. A man fires a firework from the window of a moving car.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Although at first these examples may seem a part of the film’s comedic elements, they are actually more representative of its meditation on Dignan’s desire to belong and his belief that crime is a means to attain it. From a criminology standpoint, there are many sociological theories surrounding the reasons for participation in criminal acts. One particularly widely cited explanation is Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory. This theory states that all individuals are capable of crime, but the majority do not participate because they fear that illegal behaviour will damage their social relationships with their families and peers. 

In Bottle Rocket, Dignan represents an inversion of this theory where he believes that participation in criminal acts will ultimately improve his social standing. Notably, he is the only member of the trio not to have any family members shown on-screen. This explains, in part, why he is willing to risk serious punishment by committing crimes that he has neither the knowledge or skills to successfully plan and execute. 

This portrayal of crime as a means to belong is a common feature of many gangster films. In particular, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas shows it through following the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) whose involvement with the New York City mob is motivated primarily by his desire to simply be a part of it. Throughout the film, Hill often overlooks the financial rewards of his position and instead focuses on the social status it gives him in his community. 

Inversions of Hirschi’s theory can also be found in films which are based on the classic Bonnie and Clyde trope where the need to maintain a close personal relationship supersedes the social pressure to avoid being associated with crime. This is best described as the “us versus the world” mentality and can be applied to both platonic relationships, as in Ridley Scott’s 1991 film Thelma & Louise, or romantic relationships, as in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance. 

The theme of Dignan’s loneliness as the driver for his criminal acts is further emphasised by his actions after Anthony and Bob abandon the heists. This sense of abandonment is enhanced by the knowledge that they are leaving to help the other people in their lives, with Anthony leaving to reunite with his girlfriend and Bob returning home to help his brother avoid prison. 

Screencapture from Bottle Rocket. Two men sit in a diner waiting to be served.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Now truly alone, this prompts Dignan to join the crew of local landscaper and part-time criminal Mr. Henry (James Caan). Although Dignan giving up his delusional schemes is clearly in his best interest, this remains the film’s most tragic moment. He has finally lost the ambition to find the camaraderie and bond that he believes pulling off a crime caper with your friends affords and instead decides to commit to a serious life of crime without them. 

However, this decision is short-lived as Dignan soon reconciles with Anthony and Bob and invites them to join Mr Henry’s upcoming heist due to take place in a local cold storage facility. During the planning process, the trio finally air their grievances about their failed criminal enterprise and resolve to work together again. This is a turning point in the film’s portrayal of friendship and shows them interacting as  true friends rather than criminal associates and admitting that they need each other to successfully pull off the heist.

Despite their best intentions though, when the heist finally takes place their plans quickly go awry. In the ensuing panic, one of their associates has a heart attack and Dignan ends up being arrested whilst trying to get him safely out of the building. The film then concludes with Anthony and Bob visiting Dignan in prison, commiserating with him about the failure of their heist and revealing that Mr Henry had used the ill-fated heist as a distraction whilst he robbed Bob’s house. 

Screencapture from Bottle Rocket. A man holds a lit firework whilst another man and woman look on confused.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Although generally a final scene in which one of the main characters is incarcerated would be considered sombre, Bottle Rocket eschews this and uses it to display a message of hope as Digan’s character arc is now complete. He has finally found true reciprocal friendship and has abandoned his delusional perception of crime as a means of being a part of something. He even jokes about involving them in a hare-brained escape attempt before revealing he now knows better and lets his friends get on their way. 

Ultimately, Bottle Rocket is a film about belonging – whether it’s to your friends, your family, or indeed to your local landscape gardener and part-time criminal’s crime syndicate – and the mechanism by which you attain acceptance. In Dignan’s case, after surrendering his criminal ambitions, he is finally in line with Hirschi’s theory and is now content, belonging in spite of crime rather than because of it.