Film review: The Bling Ring (2013)
Three days after seeing The Bling Ring, I still can’t reconcile the cognitive dissonance I felt as I walked out of the theater. It makes sense that, thus far, The Bling Ring has been receiving largely mixed reviews. I’m not the only one rattled by Sofia Coppola’s determinedly noncommittal fictionalization of the exploits of the “Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch”, a group of well-off suburban teens who stole an estimated three million dollars of cash, clothes, jewelry, drugs and art from the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan between December 2008 and August 2009. Based on “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring rarely departs from the details of the case that are already public record. Anyone looking for an intimate glimpse into the lives of these teenagers or a comfortable explanation of their behavior will be left cold by Coppola’s calculatedly distanced approach. For all her characteristic visual and musical flourishes, Coppola seems determined not to embellish upon this already stranger-than-fiction episode of American pop culture.
At the center of this unlikely group of teen felons are best friends Rebecca and Marc, played with sensitivity by virtual unknowns Katie Chang and Israel Broussard. Like Coppola’s very first film, The Virgin Suicides, her latest is a story about a group of girls told through the eyes of a boy who is both fascinated and terrified by them. By default, Marc is the closest thing The Bling Ring has to a moral center, perhaps because his confession to a reporter, which we hear in voice-over throughout the film, sounds a little less like complete bullshit than those of the rest of the group.
Rebecca, by turns disarmingly warm and icily manipulative, is the Ring’s bona fide ringleader. Coppola tempers the hard edges of her self-assurance with quiet hints of insecurity and desperation. Marc, on the other hand, exudes vulnerability. Halfway out of the closet, he eventually tells a reporter that he loved Rebecca “like a sister.” During one of their six raids of Paris Hilton’s house, he tries on a pair of pink high heels, apparently as a joke, but secretly keeps them and wears them when he’s alone. At one point, he records a Photobooth video of himself smoking weed and timidly booty-shaking around his room to Ester Dean’s “Drop It Low”—an almost exact restaging of a video that the real-life inspiration for Marc’s character—Nick Prugo—recorded, and which aired on TMZ. The crooked, bright-red lipstick Marc wears in the film version is Coppola’s touch.
Ultimately, the film—and the headlines—belong to Nicki, a secondary member of the Burglar Bunch, played by Emma Watson. Nicki and her adopted sister Sam (played by an appropriately vacant Taissa Farmiga) pop Adderall and Xanax like Tic Tacs. Their mother (Leslie Mann) home-schools them on a steady curriculum based on The Secret with a healthy twist of Scientology, tries to give them positive role models like Angelina Jolie, and remains willfully oblivious to their nocturnal exploits.
For Nicki, an aspiring commercial actress, model and reality TV starlet, the sky’s the limit. She’s shrewd enough to spin her eventual arrest into “a huge learning lesson” on the path to fame and glory. If you find Emma Watson’s Calabasas, Kardashian-inspired accent cartoonishly overblown, try plunging into the existential void of a quick YouTube search for Alexis Neiers, her real-life counterpart.
Almost all of the kookiest details and wildest one-liners from The Bling Ring (“What did Lindsay say?” “I want to lead a country...”) are direct quotes from the Vanity Fair article that served as its main source material. The last scene is lifted verbatim from an actual TV interview Neiers gave, in which she nonchalantly discusses what is was like to spend thirty days in the same cellblock as their final victim and “ultimate fashion icon” Lindsay Lohan. There is a fine line between glorifying these kids and taking vengeance on them, and Coppola seems to be treading carefully, so as not to fall either way. This caution has a price, a kind of polite airbrushing away of much of the ugliness these events might otherwise carry with them.
Though she has changed their names, Coppola has nonetheless given the members of the Bling Ring the full Hollywood treatment. They are played by glamorous young stars and newcomers who resemble models even before they start stealing Alexander McQueen sunglasses. Their burglaries—sad, fumbling maneuvers when caught on grainy surveillance footage—become something entirely different when captured so gracefully on film to a soundtrack by Sleigh Bells and Azealia Banks, radiating at an earth-shattering volume. Marc pays lip service to America’s “sick fascination with the Bonnie and Clyde kind of thing,” but this self-awareness, so late in the game, can’t quite take back the rush of that music, or the endless barrage of flashes from iPhone selfies.
At times, Coppola—and cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt—seem poised to reclaim the story as something of their own, to welcome and guide us through what is otherwise a stylish refraction of fact. In one of the more inspired moments of the film, we see one of the robberies entirely through a single, distant shot of a glass-walled mansion. As the camera slowly pushes in, we can see lights turning on and off, doors flying open, the kids scurrying around excitedly within like figures in an intricate, glowing dollhouse. They seem at once childlike and sinister, enchanted and pathetic. But the moment soon dissipates; the music starts back up.
Maybe I wanted The Bling Ring to sting a little more, for it to hurt the way a film like Network hurts. There are certainly moments that bite—Nicki’s final plug for her website, or Marc’s self-satisfied grin as he tells a reporter that in the days following his arrest he received over 800 Facebook friend requests. It’s somehow both infuriating and deeply admirable that Coppola doesn’t pretend to understand what led these teenagers to play their high-stakes game of dress-up. Her version of the story would still be at home between full-page Burberry ads in Vanity Fair—another beautiful, impassable surface.
Double Exposure, 2013