Aptly shot along the Los Angeles oceanfront, two upper-class Calabasas teens bond over their favorite celebrities and brands. Marc (Israel Broussard) and Rebecca (Katie Chang) have the luxury of privilege and pompous vanity that only comes with adolescence. Like all of Sofia Coppola’s subjects, the two are in stasis – in an arrested development that prohibits them from achieving their most wanton desires. To appropriately describe their goals is something of an abstraction. It’s perhaps best noted by Marc when he and Rebecca forge their friendship: “I want my own lifestyle brand”.
This statement is of course a ridiculous contrary to Marc’s perceived sense of originality. But as The Bling Ring takes shape, one can view Marc as merely a blank canvas – someone out of his depth and incapable of adjusting his own moral compass. Coppola frames her film in two sects: one being an account of events and the second involving intercutting talking head segments where the various members of the Bling Ring discuss their involvement in a series of crimes committed against celebrities in West Hollywood. By doing this, the audience gathers a crucial subtext to enrich the admittedly bland discourse of entitled teenagers. Marc’s character is a particularly interesting case, essentially instilling the material with the outsider’s perspective wherein his identity is shaped by those around him. Coppola’s dabbled with this sort of character before, most notably with Kirstin Dunst in The Virgin Suicides. By complicating the gender dichotomy, Coppola invites analysis but unfortunately becomes encumbered by narrative obligations to ever flesh things out (Marc’s sexuality, or rather the complete and utter lack of sexuality in the film at all, is of particular interest).
The Bling Ring is at its best when it opts to go headlong with the ugliness of its characters. Nicki (Emma Watson) is the true conniver of the group - too immature to ignore the allure of fashion and celebrity but cunning enough to weasel her way out of a prickly situation. It’s when Coppola and the film is at its clearest and dense when Nicki unconvincingly attempts to win over her audience with falsehoods and exaggerations. By exposing, even exploiting, the character’s self-denial, the audience is left to decipher Nicki’s warped mental state. This registers as one of the few times that Coppola has allowed her audience to so blatantly judge a character. It’s an odd diversion from her typical work, though the cinematic terrain is complicated by Coppola’s aversion from ever letting all the details out – a critical courtroom scene at the film’s end is purposefully omitted.
Full of pomp and astutely observant in the decadence of youth culture (that makes me sound old), The Bling Ring joins the ranks of contemporary films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Coppola’s film falls squarely in between the two pictures. It’s her adherence to formal precision that keeps The Bling Ring assured, but the film ultimately lacks Spring Breakers ambition and devilish absurdity. The Bling Ring is dedicated to the late Harry Savides, one of the great cinematographers of my lifetime. His work in shooting Los Angeles lends itself to creating something of a haze, as the exhaust of the milieu is palpable in works like Zodiac and Greenberg. His final work in The Bling Ring replicates this notion, though perhaps it’s not the appropriate visual palette to match the increasingly dark and pulsing material? In that respect, Spring Breakers was something of a nightmare; The Bling Ring a daydream.