• Nick Karner

The Bling Ring (2013)


There’s an extraordinary shot in 2013’s The Bling Ring where the de facto ringleaders of the vapid, materialistic, and shameless group of thieves "break in," which is far too heavy-handed a description considering the doors were unlocked, to Audrina Partridge’s house.  The house, whose outer walls consist entirely of glass, reveal all in a wide shot with Los Angeles shimmering in the background beneath the night sky.  Playing out in a single take with a subtle zoom creeping ever closer towards Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) as they take what they want, I was reminded of something.  Could it be other long takes from classic films, like The Passenger (1975) or Five Easy Pieces (1970)?   Maybe I just have Nicholson on the mind because of his permanent residence in those fabled Hollywood Hills. No, I was reminded of the final episode of Mr. Show’s fourth season.  A hilarious fictional recreation of the rise and fall of Corey Feldman, here called Josh Fenderman, where his clearly horrible mother remarks, “We built a glass mansion on a hill overlooking a ghetto so the poor people could look up and be inspired by our wealth.”  It’s a keenly observed jab at the rich and famous whose priorities and feelings of self-worth are often wildly out of whack, but it’s also a commentary on the prospect of fame and fortune being dangled in front of the dreamers and schemers then having it snatched away at the last second. 


The Bling Ring, also known as the Hollywood Hills Burglars, stole nearly three million dollars in cash, clothing, jewelry, and accessories from October 2008 to August 2009.  How did they do it? These weren’t hardened criminals (at least not all of them) who had rap sheets a mile long and carefully laid out plans involving house blueprints and elaborate lock-picking techniques.  They were high school students, practically children, who just snuck onto a property under the cover of night and opened the door, which was unlocked 90% of the time. For some, being young instills a glorious feeling of invincibility that causes inhibitions to be completely ignored. Of course, drugs and alcohol certainly help as well.  


“It’s fine.”


This line is spoken several times, often in response to Marc’s insistence that they vacate the property sooner rather than later with their ill-gotten gains.  Rebecca’s calm and outright casual demeanor during these midnight “shopping sprees” exemplifies her attitude toward this entire sordid enterprise.  She wants stuff. These rich people have it. She’s going to take it. It’s easy to see how Marc and the other members of the group, played here by Emma Watson, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga, were drawn into Rebecca’s circle. She has a carefree confidence that’s intoxicating.  Even when an unseen security car pulls up just as Marc and Rebecca have burgled a house and they huddle in the bushes, it’s Marc who is terrified, muttering “Oh my God...” while Rebecca is simply angry, harshly whispering “Shit!” as if the security guard is just greatly inconveniencing her.  

Writer/Director Sofia Coppola is Hollywood royalty.  This is her world and on paper, she’s the perfect filmmaker to helm this peculiar true story.  Based off of the research, it appears that she’s retained most of the events as they took place as well as snatches of dialogue including, “Let’s go shopping” and “If I tell you where everything is, would you let me go?”  There are countless moments in the movie, small and seemingly inconsequential, that feel unbelievable or at least gussied up for dramatic effect, that really happened. They returned to Paris Hilton’s house multiple times. Rebecca really did steal Orlando Bloom’s artwork to decorate her father’s home in Nevada while Marc snatched up Bloom’s Rolex collection.  They found the home addresses on the internet and figured out when they’d be out of town for acting jobs or fashion shows.  When they had too much merchandise to handle, they sold it on the Venice Beach boardwalk.  Yes, they found a gun. Yes, they found topless polaroids. Yes, they found drugs.  The question is whether all of this can make a compelling movie.

Sort of.  Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking style is idiosyncratic, to say the least. There are certainly other directors who appear to be in no particular rush to move their stories along with any urgency.  Often, these kinds of filmmakers tend to endear themselves to the indie crowd who appreciate “artsy” films.  Coppola’s first two features, The Virgin Suicides (1999) and her breakthrough Lost in Translation (2003) were triumphs of balancing a deliberate, gentle pace with performances magnetic enough to offset any need to speed up the proceedings.  Looking back, particularly at Lost In Translation, the movie’s impact, both culturally, financially, and in terms of award plaudits, is quite surprising.  I hadn’t realized the film received both best actor and actress BAFTA awards while Scarlett Johansson would not even be nominated for an Oscar and Bill Murray would be robbed by Sean Penn’s now-laughable portrayal of a grieving father in Mystic River (2003). Coppola had truly come out of the shadow of her father and much more famous family members.


She went for broke with Marie Antoinette (2006), an absolutely gorgeous but hollow exercise in style over substance that deservedly won the Best Costume Academy Award.  The ad campaign promised an outrageous and fun-filled romp through late 1700’s France accompanied by a vibrant modern soundtrack. Arguably Coppola’s greatest strength is her understanding and feel for music. No one can accuse Sofia Coppola’s soundtracks of being boring or predictable. Her soundscapes set an immediate tone and perform double-duty by transporting you into an unknown world that would otherwise need to be conveyed through performance and specific locale.  There’s a great what-if regarding Coppola’s aborted adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  The prospect of her tackling a musical armed with her knowledge of how music and images coalesce might have been something special.  

Skipping past Somewhere (2010), which seemed poised to become another success after garnering the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival but was ultimately dismissed as a slightly boring character study, The Bling Ring is Coppola’s continued examination of what fame and the pursuit of it really means.  These kids are obsessed with reality television, probably unaware how manufactured and manipulated the so-called “reality” really is.  They believe fancy outfits, purses, and cars buy them a certain level of cache which, for a time, it does.  Coppola’s roving camera, panning back and forth across the group as they take selfies, tip generously, and bask in the glow of their own good fortune, accentuates the aimless nature of their lives.  There's little satire in the film except Leslie Mann’s turn as Emma Watson’s pretentious faux-religious mother. It’s commendable that Coppola acts as a silent observer rather than a finger-wagger, opting to make no clear judgement on these shallow people and simply present the events as they happened. This is similar to the films of Larry Clark, who takes a more leering approach but nevertheless allows the characters to dig their own graves and make their own (sometimes) poor decisions.  There’s a nastier, more vicious way this story could’ve been told, but that’s not where Coppola’s interests lie.   

Except for Marie Antoinette and a filmed stage version of La Traviata that doesn’t count, Coppola’s movies clock in at under two hours.  It’s somewhat ironic that her father, on the other hand, had no problem making films that would often clock in at two, sometimes even three hours plus, depending on the cut.  Her languid style meshes well with the characters and a longer movie may have become unbearable after a stretch. For now, the film is agreeably brief.  


The structure is problematic. Given how many millions of movies follow the same story arcs and beats, a straightforward story needs to be told in a fresh way.  The film interrupts the genuinely intriguing story with post-arrest interviews, teasing the viewer with the knowledge that it all comes crashing down.  It provides some helpful insight, particularly into the relationship between Rebecca and Marc, but it also weakens the flow of the picture.  The only amusing reveal is that it’s assumed the interview with Marc is an interrogation, but it is in fact an interview with Vanity Fair.  I’m very much in the “Yes” camp regarding whether Sofia Coppola should have been the one to tell this story, but I do wonder what a darker, more exuberant filmmaker would’ve done with the material. I’m not looking for graphic depictions of teen debauchery, but the movie is light on sex and matter-of-fact about drugs.  Maybe this is an accurate depiction of that kind of lifestyle. I believe so, but movies are an entertainment and there’s a titillation factor missing from such a rich concept.  


The real standout performances are from Katie Chang and Israel Broussard, particularly Chang. Her magnetism is undeniable and she gives an unapologetic portrayal of a single-minded young woman determined to get what she deems rightfully hers.  Broussard’s acting here is so laid-back, he’s practically asleep, but it’s a difficult trick to be convincing as the only guy in this clique of materialists that could be accepted and even liked. A believable performance. I’m surprised that most of the critical acclaim was laid on Emma Watson, whose performance never rang true for me at all. I completely understand what she’s going for and it makes sense, but the character doesn’t feel lived-in enough to make her a convincing bubble head with expensive taste.  Taissa Farmiga is a fun, less fake foil to Watson as her adoptive sister. Claire Julien, daughter of cinematographer Wally Pfister, is very effective, particularly in a car crash scene that we’ve seen a million times in the exact same way but in which her reaction is genuine and her response to her court-ordered garbage pickup is hilarious.  

In the film’s most satisfying sequence, the teens are apprehended one after the other.  Save for Marc, who oddly comes out of the bathroom already crying even though he isn’t shown to have seen the police arriving, the girls in the group protest their innocence.  Emma Watson seems shocked while Katie Chang, practically sociopathic in her calm denials, finally breaks and pathetically attempts to broker a deal with the police.  Their comeuppance is great fun to watch.

I can’t say The Bling Ring wasn’t enjoyable. Coppola’s movies can be slightly difficult, although the one thing she definitely possesses is a knack for sniffing out a good story.  Like The Beguiled (2017), even if the resultant film doesn’t quite have the “oomph” you were expecting from such wild material, it’s still very intriguing and mercifully short.