Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) is about people with too much time and too little thought. It’s about immediate experience in a detached existence. It tells the true story of a group of high schoolers in Los Angeles who watch the Internet to find out when celebrities are out of town at parties or shooting movies, then they break into their homes to steal their clothes, purses and jewelry. One of them thought about taking Paris Hilton’s dog but was dissuaded. Coppola tells the story in her typical detached, ennui-infused style, mixing in moments of hazy dream- (or drug-)like frenzy, that makes the movie resemble Spring Breakers (2013), beside which it would make a compelling double-bill. They are both about a myopic selfishness, people who are unable to see beyond their own frivolous needs. Both movies have been misunderstood for idolizing the dirtbags they present but, certainly in The Bling Ring’s case, I don’t understand how you can read the movie that way. The Bling Ring is funny and sad but mostly infuriating because people like this exist, all the stupid things in the movie happened, and Coppola does an admirable job of letting us stew in that fury while celebrating the fact that we have better things to do than be these people.
The movie begins with Marc (Israel Broussard), new at Indian Wells High School, an apparent magnet for the worst kids in Southern California. Here are all the bad eggs in one basket, kids who dropped out or were kicked out of other schools, like Rebecca (Katie Chang) who ended up at IWHS for “bringing substances to school that you aren’t supposed to have.” She takes a liking to Marc and has a further liking of abusing people’s trust. It may seem natural to leave your car unlocked when you go to a friend’s party, unless that friend is Rebecca. Soon she has recruited Marc, bad-girl Chloe (Claire Julien) and two vapid friends Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) to sneak into empty celebrity homes, which are frequently left unlocked (they climb through the doggie door at Rachel Bilson’s house and Paris Hilton keeps her key under the mat [though I doubt she does anymore]). They wear the celeb’s clothes out, rock their jewelry and their purses, post pictures of themselves online with stolen goods and stacks of money and do lots of drugs.
A lot of emphasis is placed upon how reckless all this is. The thieves don’t wear gloves, they don’t wear masks, they try things on and put them back, they lie in beds and spill drinks. They happily confirm rumors they’ve started to casual acquaintances. There’s a wonderful sustained shot of the exterior of a reality television star’s house as our troublemakers rummage through it. The house is all glass, and as lights go on and off and the thieves run around in plain view, all it would take is one neighbor, one passing driver, one little old lady walking her dog to figure out what’s going on. But when you have the capacity for thinking only of yourself and your immediate needs, who can possibly have the prescience to think about little old ladies?
Naturally, after taking more than $3 million in designer dresses and handbags, the team is caught and punished, though not too severely (11 years of jail time spread out between the five of them). They become pseudo-celebrities themselves, feeding into, as Marc says, a certain “Bonnie and Clyde obsession.” Marc, being the most thoughtful of the bunch, is able to reference something older than last September’s issue of Elle. The group, led by Rebecca, is living vicarious lives. If they have beautiful clothing and take racy pictures in hot clubs than they must be like the people they are victimizing, who, for them, only exist in beautiful clothing and through racy pictures in hot clubs. “Have you spoken to any of the people we robbed?” Rebecca asks in a police interrogation room. “I’ve spoken to all of them,” the cop says. ”Really? What did Lindsay say?”
Though the movie doesn’t make this explicit there’s a uniform story that all these kids have. One parent is invariably gone, either working too much or out of their lives completely. The remaining one is often well-meaning but unengaged. Nicki and Sam, who aren’t blood relatives but are both raised by Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann), are schooled at home by the teachings of The Secret. The mother assigns vision boards and daily affirmations but misses the copious signs that her wards are doing drugs and sleeping with older men, often in her own house. Where do these parents think the clothes come from? The jewelry? There’s a shot in the middle of the movie that is a masterstroke of economical storytelling and composition. Chloe sits in the middle of the frame at the kitchen island. She is engrossed with her phone. In the background is a definitive second wife making breakfast, next to her a Latina housemaid. This is such a nice house, a house of means and wealth—why on earth would any residence of this mansion need to steal anything? “Do you want beets?” asks Stepmom. “Ugh, no,” responds Chloe, never breaking her gaze with her phone. Behind her, her father sits at the table, as mesmerized by his paper as Chloe is with her phone. Two pristine white dogs sit attentively beneath him.
This is the subtle way in which Coppola insists on what a tragedy this is: not that the crimes are necessarily heinous (the group returns a half-dozen times to Paris Hilton’s house taking thousands of dollars’ worth of items but apparently Hilton didn’t notice she’d been burgled until the fourth or fifth robbery) but that they were done not out of necessity, or desperation, but out of boredom or the tiniest of inciting desire. These are shallow people, dumb people, people who count their worth by their Facebook requests. How do people get this way? Coppola seems to be asking.
Coppola’s camera, which captures so much, is equaled by her script, which is a study in sophisticated stupidity. Screenwriting is less about flowery, interesting language and more about how specific people communicate, and Coppola does a wonderful job of letting us know just who these people are. Nicki, played with hilarious brilliance by Watson, says, “Oh, my God” at the beginning of every sentence as if it’s a placeholder to give her time to figure out what she wants to say. She should take more time. Like most of the people in this movie, she rarely says anything interesting or worthwhile, and yet each phrase is load-bearing because it reveals how uninterested in intelligence or curiosity these people are. During a post-arrest interview, Nikki’s lawyer implores her not to answer a question, but she turns him down. “I have, like, a good statement to say about this,” she says. The statement: “I think this situation was attracted into my life as, like, a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.” There you go.
More than anything, this is a movie that gets at what makes movies the most empathetic art form. There’s no doubt a filmmaker could idolize these people, but watch the corners of the frame, listen to what the characters are saying (or how they say nothing at all). This is a sad movie that does something that the real-life Bling Ring never did: It thinks about the feelings of others, and it’s concerned with how we treat each other and the consequences of our actions.