(note: This was a paper I used for a class on American Cinema since 1970 which I received a 98% on. I am reprinting this in slightly edited form for my two-and-a-half readers.)
As one of the many examples of the independent film movement of the 1990’s, it isn’t too surprising that Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket doesn’t appear to follow typical
The plot itself is continuously unfolding with relatively unpredictable events, which seems to stand in clear opposition to the “situation-resolution” plots in many
Because of this more complex structure, it is a bit more difficult to divide Bottle Rocket comfortably into Kristin Thompson’s four-act structure she outlines in Storytelling in the New Hollywood. The set-up and complicating action have very clear cut turning points, which as Thompson defines as the shifts of the protagonists’ goals in different directions which signal the end of the act (Thompson 27). While the turning points in the development, climax and epilogue are also quite clear cut, their running times are noticeably shorter than the set-up and the complicating action. Because of this, the film could be said to have either a three-act or four-act structure, though it’s also possible to cut the complicating action into two parts and label it a five-act structure, which is almost unheard of for a film that only runs 87.5 minutes (excluding the end credits), but is perhaps the most fitting.
The Set Up: You can’t save everyone
Bottle Rocket begins with a departure. Anthony Adams is about to leave from a mental health clinic, in a way meant to convince his friend Dignan that he is escaping, though in actuality, the clinic was a voluntary institution Anthony had checked himself into. This very first scene of the film already establishes important character traits about its dual protagonists, Anthony and Dignan. Dignan seems to clearly love the execution exciting, if illegal, plans. This is further embellished upon in the next scene, with Dignan revealing to Anthony a plan which goes many years into the future, through which they live a life of organized crime and eventually “go legit,” seemingly a reference to The Godfather.
Anthony’s main trait at this point in the film seems to be his willingness to encourage Dignan to follow his dreams, as ridiculous as they may be. This part of his character is established through the conversation with his doctor as he climbs out the window, with the doctor reminding Anthony to not try to “save everyone,” though it soon becomes apparent that Anthony isn’t taking that advice to heart at this point in time.
The film doesn’t wait long to dive into Dignan’s plans, which include a practice run, which subsequently turns out to be of Anthony’s own house, and an actual robbery of a book store, all in order to join “the team” of a local thief named Mr. Henry. The focus of the rest of this segment is developing Dignan’s character, mostly through perception of him by others as being someone who is not to be taken seriously. This is most apparent through the characters of Anthony’s younger sister Grace and the workers at the book store they rob. Grace claims to see Dignan as a likable guy, but her reaction to Anthony’s mention of him is less than enthusiastic. While planning for the robbery, he threatens that there will not be a “gang” (surprisingly not using the word “team”) when he feels that Anthony and Bob aren’t taking his plan seriously. During the robbery sequence, the clerks working are not afraid to insult him to his face, despite the fact that he is carrying a loaded weapon and demanding all the money in their drawer.
While Dignan is clearly a wannabe criminal at this point, Anthony doesn’t seem to have much motivation to go anywhere in life. Like the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, life seems to just happen to him, and he’s rather comfortable with it being that way. It’s established that he’s never had a job, that he abruptly left his ex-girlfriend simply for coming to the sudden realization that he did not want to see her or her friends anymore, and that his reason for entering the clinic was simply because he was tired of answering peoples’ questions. There does seem to be subtle hinting that he desires a girlfriend and/or sex, as his behavior when talking to Stacy, his ex-girlfriend’s sorority sister seems to border on being flirtatious.
A third factor in the plot comes through Bob Mapplethorpe, who is not really a protagonist of the film so much as he is the unfortunate victim of the side-effects of Dignan’s behavior. His main defining characteristics seem to be his desire to be a part of a “team,” which is a recurring motif throughout the film, and his love/hate relationship with his older brother Future Man. He comes much closer to being a criminal than Dignan or Anthony, as he grows marijuana in his yard.
Dignan’s motivation is finally revealed after the heist: Mr. Henry was his former boss at his job in the landscaping business, who suddenly fired him. As he liked that job very much, his feelings were clearly hurt by the firing ordeal. This revelation is the beginning of a turning point, and after a pop music montage which references Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (through a series of jump cuts in a car ride as Dignan shoots bottle rockets out the window of a car) and a short conversation about whether or not crime pays, the first act finishes as they drive up to a motel.
Complicating Action: Bob’s gone. He stole his car.
Act two begins in the motel the next morning, about 23.5 minutes into the film. Here begins a noticeable “lull,” a seeming shift in the pace of the film meant for introducing new subplots and furthering development of the main characters (Thompson 43). For the next half and hour, Dignan, Anthony, and (at first) Bob are laying low at the motel. Anthony takes a dive into the pool, which not only serves as a reference to The Graduate, but allows him to discover a romantic subplot when he makes his way to the surface. If his flirtatiousness with Stacy was subtly hinting that he was looking for some sort of female companionship, his first notice of Inez makes his desire much more obvious, as he follows her around the motel, talking his head off to her, despite the fact she does not understand English well at this point.
Dignan’s main concern at this point is hiding the identities of the members of his team, which as usual is not taken at all seriously by Anthony. Bob seems to be more willing to follow Dignan’s lead at first, agreeing to go to a barbershop for a haircut, but gets a reality check when his brother is put in jail for the marijuana crop that was going. This further develops Dignan’s lack of a grip on reality, as he sees laying low a far more important task than helping Bob’s brother. Dignan also betrays a bit of jealousy toward Anthony, as he seems to keep bumping into Anthony’s private moments with Inez. Whether he’s jealous that Anthony is with a pretty girl or because Inez is taking up time with his friend is unclear. All this begins the dissolution of “the team” that forms one of the major subplots of the second act.
What tempts me to cut the complicating action in half is the shift in tone at approximately 35 minutes into the film. Bob leaves, “stealing his car,” as an angry Dignan puts it. Anthony’s relationship with Inez also begins to change around this point, as soon after he has a noticeable jealous streak when she talks to another man in Spanish at a club that she, Anthony, and Dignan are visiting, and is clearly upset when she says she does not want to leave the motel with the two partners in petty crime. While she does later admit she loves him (through another motel employee, Rocky, translating her Spanish to English), this message doesn’t quite reach him as Dignan misinterprets it.
When the Dignan and Anthony do leave the motel, it’s accompanied by a pop music montage of them driving through the countryside, leading into a fight between the two of them. Like the end of the set-up, the end of the complicating action is marked by a revelation in the character of Dignan, once again elaborating how neglected he feels by society, or Anthony in particular this time, and showing his desire to be respected.
Development: It’d mean a lot to me if you let me do this one on my own.
A narrative ellipsis and time-compression montage mark the beginning of the development. Anthony reveals through a voice-over narrated letter to grace that he is living at Bob’s, and in a stark contrast to their earlier states, the two of them are now both working three part time jobs. Though he and Dignan had been fighting in the last scene, he betrays a fondness for his old friend when describing the spirit of the kids on the soccer team he coaches, which also counts as another iteration of the “team” motif. Even when Dignan’s not around, Anthony apparently has the desire to belong to a team. With Inez out of the picture, however, he has gone back to lacking any clear immediate goals, and mostly seems content just to survive.
Dignan has not changed one bit, however. He shows not only having been reunited with Mr. Henry, but with a new heist and a desire to reunite his “team” to pull off the job. Mr. Henry’s motivation for working with Dignan becomes clear: it’s not because of his skills, but because of his heart, and the fact that he lost his “team.” Anthony is unwilling to until Future Man making fun of Dignan causes him to feel sympathetic, and a desire to see Dignan succeed.
The team motif shows up in one more place to great affect when Bob rejoins. After a brief fight, Dignan tells Bob that they would like to have him on “the team.” This cuts directly to the team eating breakfast at Bob’s country club. In the background, a speaker saying “Curtis Forsem, you’re on the team” can be heard. While this little bit of humor may not add much to the overall structure, it reinforces the continuing motif and characters’ obsession with being a part of a team.
The development section ties up the loose end of the Inez storyline, too. While she’s been gone for the entirety of the development section, Anthony brings her up to Dignan while scoping out Hinckley Cold Storage, where the mistake is revealed, and it cuts to Anthony calling everyone at the motel until he finally gets through to Inez. This scene is cross cut with Dignan and Mr. Henry chatting about Mr. Henry helping with the heist. Dignan refuses his help, revealing that being a part of the team isn’t enough: he wants to be in charge of the team, to be in the position of respect, to get the respect he’s never received.
Like the first two acts, this section ends not only with a revelation about Dignan, but a piece of music taking over the soundtrack, as Anthony dances to a jazz music in celebration of his success with Inez.
Climax and Epilogue: We did it, though, didn’t we?
The success and happiness of Anthony’s dance is contrasted by a cut to the beginning of the heist, with a dramatic sound effect to emphasize the difference. The team is all in different states: Bob is nervous, Dignan is excited, Anthony seems a bit apathetic, and Kumar and Applejack (two of Mr. Henry’s men) seem like they’re not sure exactly what to do. At one point, Bob and Anthony consider leaving over the walkie-talkies, realizing that neither of them really have much reason to be taking part, but both end up staying when the heist goes massively wrong.
Dignan shows a clear lack of caring about whether or not he goes to jail. When Anthony tries to get him to save himself by retreating to Bob’s, he refuses to leave, instead choosing to stay behind and save the injured Applejack, whom Bob accidentally shot. The way in which he convinces Anthony to let him stay once again betrays that desire for respect and success as a criminal, to be finally taken seriously. However, though he’s able to get Applejack to the car, the police interrupt the scene and chase Dignan throughout the entire warehouse, arresting him.
It’s also revealed at this moment that Mr. Henry truly is an exceptional thief, and not as sympathetic as he appeared during the development. While the team was botching the heist at
As Dignan is pushed into the police car with the car door opening, it cuts to another shot of a door opening, this time to months later, showing Anthony and Bob entering the state penitentiary to visit Dignan in prison, beginning the film’s five minute epilogue. Dignan actually seems to be doing very well in prison, seemingly just proud of the fact that they actually went through with the heist, even though it was unsuccessful. He seems somewhat surprised to hear about Bob’s house getting cleaned out. One last minor narrative thread is tied up here: Bob and Future Man have actually been brought closer together by the robbery. Surprisingly, there are no references to “the team” in this epilogue.
Bottle Rocket ends with an entrance, as Dignan is brought from the yard back into his cell, though not without first joking about Anthony and Bob breaking him out. The film refers back to its beginning, with Dignan saying, “Ain’t it funny how you used to be in the nuthouse, now I’m in jail?” In what would become typical of
Three or Four… or Five?
I have divided Bottle Rocket into four acts, based on the most clear turning points of its narrative. However, when one looks at the running times of what I’ve outlined, the films to not fall into the “roughly equal” time lengths of the four act structure (Thompson 36):
Set-up: 23.5 minutes
Complicating Action: 30 Minutes
Development: 19 Minutes
Climax & Epilogue: 15 minutes
There are two possible methods to make up for this disparity in the lengths of the acts. On one hand, one could combine the development, climax and epilogue into one 34-minute long act. This still gives a 10-minute disparity between the lengths of the set-up and the development/climax/epilogue, however, but could be justified on the grounds that the climax of the Anthony/Inez subplot is seen during the development section.
On the other hand, one could make the acts more roughly equal by dividing up the set-up and complicating action a bit differently, turning the film into a five-act structure. If one were to consider the revelation of Dignan’s motives in becoming a thief the first major turning point, the first act ends about 19.5 minutes into the film. The second major turning point would be Bob leaving the team behind at the motel, about 35.5 minutes into the film, creating a second act that is about 16 minutes long. The second half of the complicating action section – from Bob’s departure to the Anthony and Dignans’ fight – would then be about 18 minutes, thus creating a five-act structure in which all the acts are between 15 and 20 minutes long. While the five-act structure is usually reserved for lengthy films nearing three hours in length, it actually fits Bottle Rocket very well.
Perhaps the foremost reason why Bottle Rocket doesn’t fit nicely into Thompson’s four act structure is that none of the film’s major turning points appear at the film’s “mid-point,” which would be close to 43-44 minutes into the film (Thompson 31). The closest turning points would be Bob leaving the motel at 35 minutes and Anthony’s letter to Grace at 53 minutes, both far enough from the actual mid-point to cause imbalance between the lengths of the first two acts and the last two acts, especially when considering the film’s brief running time of about 87.5 minutes. Because of this, I prefer to break the film up into the five act structure.
Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New