Undergraduate Student, University of Michigan
Vehicles in Bottle Rocket: Devices to Represent Dignan and his Growth as a Character
In Wes Anderson’s film Bottle Rocket, the character Dignan plans out his and Anthony’s future, beginning as upstart thieves in hopes of working their way up. In trying to carry out this plan, Dignan encounters many obstacles along the way that prevent him from accomplishing all of his goals. One of the most interesting and recurring obstacles involves Dignan’s lack of success in maintaining effective modes of transportation. Throughout the film, vehicles are the primary means by which Dignan and the team move from one checkpoint to another and potentially conduct successful getaways from crime scenes. However, these vehicles continually fail on him and thwart his plans. Through the use of symbolism, one can see that while in the short run the vehicles represent challenges to Dignan’s character and his plans, in the long run they are one of the many tools that help Dignan realize that escaping life’s problems is not always the proper course of action. The vehicles are devices initially used to represent Dignan’s failure in carrying out his agenda, but they eventually reveal themselves as one of the means by which Dignan assesses and changes his character.
In order to understand how the vehicles associated with Dignan challenge his character and prevent him from completing his goals, it is important to briefly explain Dignan’s unrealistic plans and his power complex. Much of this information can be derived from Dignan’s notebook, which appears in the second scene of the film in which he and Anthony ride home on a bus from the mental hospital where Anthony stayed. Past the initial five years of his plan, the rest of his ideas seem farfetched. He sets himself up to be somewhat of a crime boss, a ‘Godfather,’ in which he eventually wants to move into a legitimate business and establish a stable family supported by his wealth. His mind functions on high ideals rather than practical bases. Related to these high ideals is the fact that Dignan cannot imagine a future without Anthony as his partner in crime. He even addresses his notebook agenda directly to Anthony. For example, under the title of “Living into the 21st century,” Dignan writes, “Anthony as you know there can be no way of looking this far ahead” (Schlanger, Dignan’s Notebook). Dignan automatically assumes that Anthony will still follow in his footsteps more than fifty years down the line; this shows his unrealistic expectation that Anthony will always share the same life vision as himself. On top of these unrealistic goals and expectations, Dignan feels that he has to be in control at all times. In various scenes throughout the film he either verbally or behaviorally establishes his position as leader, often with great intensity. In one of these scenes, Anthony and Bob’s attention is diverted to a gun lying on the table while Dignan is giving a mission briefing. Dignan takes this as a sign that his leadership position is not being taken seriously, and consequently he becomes perturbed. All of these characteristics of Dignan are challenged and put into question by various obstacles throughout the film, and the vehicles available to him in particular are symbolic of these challenges.
Early in the film, Bob’s car is Dignan’s only getaway vehicle. Dignan, Bob, and Anthony are even successful in escaping after the first heist at the bookstore because of the car, which allows Dignan to bring his plans to fruition. Therefore, later in the film when Bob drives away from the hotel where the three of them stay, he foils Dignan’s plans. Dignan begrudges Bob’s leave, which is shown when he repeatedly mentions to Anthony how little Bob matters to the team: “I mean who's to say that you need Bob to have an adventure? Where is that rule written? There's nothing that says that.” (Schlanger, Act 2). Dignan is not angry at the fact that Bob himself leaves, but rather at the fact that he no longer has a getaway car. This is largely revealed earlier in the film when Dignan tells Bob that his main asset to the team is his car: “Your number one strength is you have a car you can provide” (Act 1). Thus, Dignan’s loss of Bob’s car hampers his plans and leaves him with little control over his agenda, thereby affronting his position of leadership and challenging his fundamental character traits.
Shortly after this setback, Dignan steals a convertible from the hotel, another vehicle that symbolizes his failed vision of success. As Dignan and Anthony leave the hotel in the stolen car, there are a couple of hints foreboding the deconstruction of Dignan’s plans. One of these hints is the Proclaimers song “Over and Done With,” while another prominent one is the car breaking down. In particular, Dignan’s comments about the broken-down car portend bad news: “One minute it's running like a top and the next minute, it's broken down on the side of the road” (Act 2). Correspondingly, one minute Dignan believes that Anthony still has a few hundred dollars to keep their plans alive, and the next minute he realizes that Anthony gave almost all of it to Inez, his new girlfriend from the hotel. Without the money, Dignan’s plans are put on hold and once again diminish the power he holds over his circumstances. Moreover, when Dignan proceeds to break the windshield with a rock, the car represents his distorted vision of the road towards fulfilling his dreams. When moving from one checkpoint to another, the windshield is the lens through which Dignan views his romanticized future; once shattered, it represents his splintered outlook on life in general and his planned future in particular. Above all, these hindrances enfeeble Dignan’s authority and force a sense of reality upon him. At this point in the film, however, Dignan is not ready to accept this reality – the result is his jealousy and betrayal of Anthony. Dignan hits Anthony in the face and walks away from him, as if walking away from life’s problems instead of dealing with and fixing them.
Some time after this incident, Dignan returns to find that Anthony has moved on with his life; irregardless, he tries to persuade Anthony to join Mr. Henry’s crime team with him. In this scene Dignan is riding a motor-scooter; while not a getaway vehicle per se, the scooter is a mode of transportation that symbolizes Dignan’s smalltime and unrealistic plans. As Dignan rides his tiny and pathetic scooter down Bob’s driveway to meet Anthony, he haphazardly and waveringly makes his way on screen. In contrast, Future Man, Bob’s brother, arrives on screen driving in a straight path while in a large and intimidating SUV. This contrast is not to point out that Future Man is better-off than Dignan; rather, it is to show how belittled and ridiculous Dignan and his plans seem to an outside observer. Future Man and his friend Clay laugh hysterically at Dignan, adding to the impression that Dignan and his plans are ‘laughable’ and ridiculous. Along with having his plans belittled, Dignan is stubborn in his insistence that Anthony join the group, without first considering Anthony’s desires. This unreasonable resolve is demonstrated by Dignan’s request that Anthony ride on the scooter with him: “Dignan: C'mon, go for a ride. / Anthony: C'mon Dignan. It's too small for the both of us. / Dignan: No it isn't. Jump on, man. I'll give you a pump” (Act 3). Although it is apparent to Anthony and the film’s audience that the scooter is too small to fit both of them, Dignan does not accept this fact. This might signify that despite Dignan’s fanciful desires to take Anthony along with him on his escapades, the reality is that Anthony’s wants and needs do not correspond with his own.
Despite this reality, Dignan eventually persuades Anthony to join the crew and do one last job. During their last crime scene together, Dignan fails to escape in the crew’s van, thereby putting an end to his plans. The van is easily the largest of Dignan’s getaway vehicles. Perhaps this sets up Dignan for his largest undertaking, one that proves a little too large for him to handle. The van is ideally used to transport an entire team of people, not an individual, and when Dignan insists that he save the recently injured Applejack and escape all by himself, he bites off more than he can handle. This is represented by Dignan’s failure to unlock the van, which serves as a barricade that prevents him from taking control of the situation on his own. Eventually, his desire to play the lone hero leads him into an abrupt reality shock. Following a short on-foot chase, this shock comes in the form of the cold ice that he is thrown down upon after being cornered by the police and arrested.
By being unable to run away from the crime scene, Dignan is forced to confront reality when he is put in jail. As such, when Anthony and Bob visit Dignan, they visit a changed man. While one could argue that Dignan has not changed at all, there are signs that show otherwise. One of these signs is that he mocks the naiveté of his usual plans. As Anthony and Bob are about to leave, Dignan tricks them into thinking that he is attempting a prison break. The Dignan seen earlier in the film might have been serious about this proposal; for example, when he tries to persuade Anthony to join Mr. Henry’s team and perform a job, he appears sincere when he exclaims,
Okay. Just hear me out. It's called Hinckley Cold Storage. Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole-vaulting, laughing gas, choppers. Can you see how incredible this is going to be...handgliding...Come on! (Act 3)
In contrast, when Dignan enthusiastically speaks about breaking out of jail, he intends it as a joke and expects a bewildered reaction from Anthony and Bob. He pokes fun at the wildly impractical ideas that he used to force upon them. Furthermore, Dignan seems happy for Anthony and Inez rather than jealous as he was throughout much of the film. Dignan accepts Anthony’s separate life agenda and no longer forces his will on Anthony through incessant persuasion. In addition, Dignan seems content with being in a position of obedience rather than one of authority. His hallmark intensity is subdued and he accepts the reality of his punishment, namely being imprisoned and thereby halting his fanciful plans. In contrast to the scene mentioned in the beginning of the paper, in which Bob and Anthony divert their attention from Dignan’s mission briefing and supposedly undermine his leadership, Dignan no longer feels the need to rebel against every perceived challenge to his authority. Perhaps most illustrative of all these changes are his last words in the film: “Changes tone to playful. Isn’t funny how you used to be in the nuthouse and now I’m in jail” (Act 3). It seems as if Dignan transcends his usual denial and admits that he needs to fix certain issues in his life, just as Anthony went to the mental hospital to fix his own. Thus, Dignan appears to be a changed character at the end, more pragmatic and tolerant than he appears throughout most of the film.
Ultimately, while the vehicles in Bottle Rocket initially represent Dignan’s halted plans, his inability to escape forces him to consider his actions more closely and become more practical and accepting of life’s issues. The reason that vehicles are used to represent Dignan’s inability to escape might be because of the parallels between a getaway vehicle and Dignan’s life. Just as a getaway vehicle is used to flee a crime scene, Dignan always tries to run away from the reality and consequences of his actions. By constantly breaking down, these vehicles represent the collapse of Dignan’s plans and affronts to his characteristics and his authority. The effect of these parallels is to provide the viewer with symbolic evidence of challenges to Dignan’s character and how he copes with these challenges. In the end, the vehicles eventually serve as tools by which Dignan learns and grows as a character, forcing him to confront the reality he has always tried to escape.
Bottle Rocket. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson. DVD. Columbia/Tristar Studios, 1996.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby the Scrivener. Hoboken: Melville House, 2004.
S, M, comp. "Bottle Rocket Final Script." Bottle Rocket Transcript. 1996. Oct. 2005 <http://www.littlebanana.com/script.htm>.