In 1996 Roger Ebert stated that the charm of Wes Anderson’s debut 𝘉𝘰𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘙𝘰𝘤𝘬𝘦𝘵 (𝟷𝟿𝟿𝟼) was in its flaws: “𝘐𝘵 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳, 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘭𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘥𝘪𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘶𝘦…[𝘣𝘶𝘵] 𝘪𝘵’𝘴 𝘵𝘰𝘰 𝘶𝘯𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘶𝘭𝘨𝘦𝘯𝘵.” I feel this is a commonality in Anderson films, where the quirks need to be slowly unveiled to save from utter lunacy, and at times he thrusts them upon us with such gusto that the quirks all blend into a long, silly, pencil thin charade. But 𝘉𝘰𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘙𝘰𝘤𝘬𝘦𝘵 isn’t so superficial, nor is it lacking style. It’s just Anderson unrefined, youthfully inspired, naturally stylistic but not yet weighed down by it.
The film opens as Anthony (Luke Wilson) begins preparing to escape from the mental hospital he’s checked into. A sheet is tied to the bedframe and drooping out the window. Dignan (Owen Wilson) hides in the underbrush, frantically shuffling as he watches the window through his binoculars. A doctor enters the room. The jig is up! That is until we realise it’s a voluntary hospital and you may come and go as you please. Anthony thanks the doctor and climbs out anyway.
The childish elan of Dignan and complacency of Anthony is more or less the entire plot. They’re not criminals, they’re just two kids playing in a sandpit. The career of crime is more a backdrop to their desire for a lifetime of inertia, of life without consequence, of impulsivity. We can probably boil it all down to boredom. It’s something to do. Hell, even the docile staff of a local bookstore they rob couldn’t care less. “𝘞𝘩𝘺 𝘥𝘰 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘢𝘱𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘯𝘰𝘴𝘦?” the clerk asks twice with generous curiosity.
Their genuine enthusiasm for killing time works well with their facetious approach to life. Dignan has colourfully filled out a journal planning their next 75-years as fugitives; Anthony tells an interested girl he’s “𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭” because he “𝘸𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘯𝘶𝘵𝘴.” Like children playing doctor in the upstairs rumpus room, they’re enthusiastic toward idealised responsibility but can’t quite calculate what that responsibility means. “𝘐’𝘮 𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘥𝘶𝘭𝘵,” Anthony asserts to his younger sister, “…𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘵 𝘮𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵?” Anderson’s notoriety for creating loveable man-babies may be a tad overcooked these days, but just like us, everything was young at some point.
In contrast to his future films—which attract as many fans as they do critics—Anderson’s stylistic design is restrained in his debut. I have an image in my head of him nervously scraping the dirt below with his foot when asked “𝘐𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘵 𝘰𝘬𝘢𝘺?” making sure not to upset anyone by asking for “𝘔𝘖𝘙𝘌 𝘗𝘈𝘚𝘛𝘌𝘓! 𝘐 𝘕𝘌𝘌𝘋 𝘉𝘐𝘓𝘓 𝘔𝘜𝘙𝘙𝘈𝘠!” but maybe I’m bloviating. The reservedness of Bottle Rocket’s design does well to emphasise the acting and the script, rather than creating a character out of everything in a congested, curated frame. I find this subtly to be the film’s best quality, where dialogue is bizarre but meandering, the world around them obscure but never over-the-top. It frolics in obscurity rather than lay and be drenched in it.
Like I’ve said in previous reviews, the divisiveness of Anderson’s films—however unintentional or not—is aggressively apparent, and unsurprisingly so. Personality begets admiration; personality begets truculence. The schism is endemic, especially for Anderson who can be so superfluous, and only more so whilst we wait for The French Dispatch to release later this year. But whether you’re a fan of the deadpan auteur in his pastel suits, or absolutely cannot stand him, 𝘉𝘰𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘙𝘰𝘤𝘬𝘦𝘵 (𝟷𝟿𝟿𝟼) has as much and as little Wes Anderson to suit all needs.