Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket — See It Or Skip It?
We review the 1993 Sundance short film hit that launched a major auteur’s career.
The Criterion Collection is known for its epic selection of films old and new, here and abroad. But did you know that you can also find short films as supplements in many of their releases? In this series of articles, we’re reviewing all the major short film supplements found in the Criterion vault. We’ll tell you the reasons to either see it or skip it, depending on what kind of filmmaker or film fan you are.
Wes Anderson’s BOTTLE ROCKET (1993)
No, we’re not talking about his feature length (and studio film) debut starring Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson. We’re talking about the 13-minute black and white short film version that premiered in Sundance, caught buzz and helped lead to the rise of Anderson and the Wilson brothers as major Hollywood figures. This story about young friends in southern Texas who are bored, restless and not so competent at staging local robberies was Anderson’s calling card to the world. He hadn’t made Rushmore and hadn’t become at all known for his signature and now oft-parodied style. Whether you’ve seen the short that started it all or not, there’s some interesting takeaways. Here’s why you should see it or skip it.
See It: To Experience The Very Early Work Of A Living Auteur
If you know enough about Wes Anderson, then you already realize that he has a very specific style. His colors, spacing and framing are always intricate and always heightened. So it may surprise many Anderson enthusiasts and filmmakers alike to know that he didn’t always start that way. Just look at the loose, grungy shooting style (very reminiscent of independent 1990s filmmaking) that much of the short film has. You can see some flashes of the future auteur in the static insert shots of items collected in the home robbery. You can also see it in a humorous scene where the characters try out guns. Any fans of the feature film know this scene well, and it’s less polished here, but the idea of a folksy, detached yet still loving portrayal of these three knuckleheads clearly germinated back in 1993.
Skip It: Very Similar To The Feature
One of the biggest drawbacks of any short film that laters goes on to become a feature (WHIPLASH, FRANKENWEENIE and more come to mind) are that the overlap in story, character and even lines of dialogue may make it seem rather inessential to watch the scrappier, early version. If you’re already familiar with the 1996 Bottle Rocket, then very little of this will surprise you. Many of the same scenes, shot ideas and dialogue are the same, and the basic beats of the feature film’s first act are all here. For some, watching this short will be like getting your hands on a first draft of “The Great Gatsby”. A nice historical footnote, but we already have the finished version.
See It: Very Similar To The Feature (with interesting changes)
On the other hand….
If you’re really into the filmmaking process or are making shorts yourself with an eye towards features, comparing the 1993 short and 1996 feature could be a really helpful exercise. Much of the banter between the two key characters, Dignan and Anthony was different originally. Either due to budget or time constraints, the entire bookstore heist (a humorous extended sequence in the feature) is all implied in the short.
It’s also interesting to note how much more serious the short film feels, as it’s missing the entire subplot with Anthony’s love interest as well as several other hijinks that lead up to the hilarious and poignant climax. The short feels a little more hard-edged than its full-length version, with the black-and-white and roving camera more reminiscent of a hard-boiled crime film than a quirky exploration of Southwest American youth.
Skip It: It’s much less distinctive than Wes Anderson’s other filmography.
Not even Bottle Rocket the feature film gets mentioned much when talking about Wes Anderson’s oeuvre. Most start with Rushmore as his true breakout debut, and with The Royal Tenenbaums sealing the deal on his greatness. And while the ’96 version feels tonally in line with the rest of his work, it’s very much a stylistic outlier. You can tell Anderson just hadn’t found his particular groove and was still borrowing from a lot of other cinematic influences. The short film feels even more removed from that, so that if you didn’t know the director’s name before watching, you wouldn’t believe it came from Anderson. For those Wes-heads purely into his aesthetic excess and specific character quirks, the short film will only disappoint and confuse.
Whether good or bad, a standalone short or just a calling card, we’re all so thankful that the “Bottle Rocket” short exists, came out, found interest from Hollywood legends like Albert Brooks and gave Wes Anderson the outside support he needed to create a career we’re still benefiting from today.
If you like short films in the Criterion Collection, then you’re going to love Miniflix! We have a great selection of award-winning and festival-qualifying short films, made by directors from around the world. Learn more or start your free trial here.