Written by Sofia Coppola (91 pages)
A lot of Sofia Coppola’s films feel very sparse, or patient I guess you could say. Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere all take their time, dwelling in the silences so that you learn more about a character by what they don’t say than what they do. For that reason, Somewhere, a 90 minute film, has a script that is only 44 pages. Something that can be described in one sentence, perhaps less, might be given a minute of screen time. There’s a scene in that movie where Elle Fanning’s character is at figure skating practice, and her dad, played by Stephen Dorff, simply watches her. It’s a single line in the script, but the moment lasts for a few minutes.
It’s because of this that Coppola’s films often feel to me like poems. She can these simple, otherwise bland lines (which she writes) and turn them into something meditative and often beautiful. I’m a big fan of her work, but after reading the screenplay for Somewhere and now the screenplay for The Bling Ring, I can only see the limitations of the story and nothing more. I don’t see, in the straightforward and uninteresting scene descriptions, what she sees. She directs her own writing, after all, so it’s possible she works with an incredible shorthand, able to know exactly what a particular moment should look like, even if the description is not very descriptive.
The script for The Bling Ring feels very short and yet also way too long. I didn’t find the characters all that engaging (really only off putting), and the compelling premise didn’t feel like it was explored with any depth.
This is a story, based on a true story, about Hollywood teenagers who burgled a series of celebrity homes. That description is enough for me to want to know more. Who are these teenagers? Are they rebellious towards these celebrities or do they want to be these celebrities? How did they break into these homes?
There are plenty of stories about people hitting it big in some way, experiencing the high life, and then suffering the fallout. Almost every gangster movie is like this, and so are movies about burglary. You’re doing something illegal and getting away with it, but the audience knows that can only last so long before you’re caught. The Bling Ring, in fact, opens with a jump forward in time to a completely nondescript burglary. We don’t know know who’s house this is, when this is or even who the characters are yet. And everything goes well, no one is caught. Then we see a news report explaining how these teenagers have been charged with multiple counts of burglary, so we are immediately told that they will be caught.
But I don’t think this information is at all necessary. Because of our familiarity with these types of movies, we’re conditioned to expect the kids to get caught. The story, though, uses this time jump to justify a framing device it will return to, which is an interview with Marc, the lone male in the group of otherwise female robbers. He is our protagonist and by all accounts the only person to express any apprehension about these break ins, though he doesn’t ever seem to express any remorse.
In these interviews, Marc tells the interviewer and the audience, in voiceover, about his frame of mind as well as that of his best friend, and the group’s ring leader, Rebecca. These interview excerpts change the momentum of the story in a way that feels familiar (after all most movies have a similar story structure), but it does so without the characters realizing it. For example, in most stories, the characters are on a journey, and then at the midpoint they come to a certain realization. Either there is new information or it’s an intersection of the A and B plot, just something that accelerates the intensity of the hero’s journey and changes their goal. It can be a pivot, but there’s still no going back. In these moments, the hero recognizes the change and consciously changes their outlook for the rest of the story.
For example, in Zootopia, the two main characters’ friendship fundamentally changes. Though the story is about a type of investigation, the story is really about the relationship between the protagonists, a bunny and a fox. One is a predator and the other prey, but they get along, though only reluctantly at first. The story is ultimately about the ways we can and should all get along, despite our differences, and at the midpoint of the story, the characters choose to work together rather than being forced to work together. There is also new information in the mystery they’re investigating that helps accelerate the A plot.
In The Bling Ring, though, the characters don’t notice all of these changes. Things start to get more intense, and the cops get closer to identifying these thieves, but the characters don’t know this, only the audience notices. The one instance of a character realizing that the plot has pivoted, is Marc. A news report plays surveillance footage of the thieves, though it’s impossible to recognize any distinguishing features of the perpetrators, but Marc panics, thinking they’ve been caught. This is only really the midpoint, as far as I could tell, because it fundamentally changed the protagonist’s perspective. Still, none of the other characters seemed worried, and Marc didn’t even change his behavior. They would go on to rob another house and then more after that.
In that subsequent robbery, at Rachel Bilson’s house, they are interrupted by someone returning home, so they escape through a window. Marc is worried, again while the others are not. In his later interview, which we see right after this break in, he says (on page 60)…
Marc claims to have changed the way he looked at everything, but it felt and feels to me like he is only saying this for his own protection. We don’t know who is interviewing him (it turns out to be a reporter) but it’s clearly someone to whom he needs to appeal to argue for his innocence. He has a motivation to say what he says, so it’s hard to take him at his word, particularly as his behavior does not improve. In other words, what he says has no influence on his actions in the story. It’s bullshit, basically.
After this moment, when the stakes are raised, we get a montage of the friends/robbers doing drugs and robbing houses. Nothing has changed even if the story feels a little different because of what Marc says and because we know that they are closer to getting caught. But again, we’ve already been shown at the very beginning that they get caught, so this isn’t new information. And it’s not like the way they expose themselves says much about the characters or the story. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume they might get caught by a surveillance camera. So this moment works on the audience more than the characters, but it doesn’t tell us anything other than we’re closer to the movie ending.
I should backtrack a little and do a brief sequence breakdown.
The first sequence, until the inciting incident is very brief. It feels like we get that flash forward of the original robbery and subsequent news coverage of the arrests just so we can pad the beginning because there’s nothing else much to add. We meet the various characters and are introduced to Marc who is new in town. His life is a little lonely, and he doesn’t fit in. That is, until he meets Rebecca who invites him to the beach on page 9…
What’s a little irritating about this is that there’s no real reason for Rebecca to be so nice to Marc. From what we know and learn about her, she has her group of friends, she has her life, everything is fine. The only evidence or hint of a connection between her and Marc is when he says he was kicked out of his last school. She identifies with this, apparently, because she adds that she was kicked out for too many substances. If this were a story set at a prep school where most of the kids were model students, than this similarity would make sense as a motivating force for them to be friends because it’s unique to them. But they’re at the drop out school where it’s implied that everyone has been kicked out of their last school. So, again, what’s unique about this? It makes sense why Marc would accept her friendship, he’s eager for a single friend, but it’s not clear to me why Rebecca would invite him to the beach. The one reason I can think, and maybe this is the point, is that she knows she can manipulate him because he’s desperate for some kind of friendly affection.
So in sequence 2, we focus on Marc’s and Rebecca’s friendship. This is the new status quo, and it’s a new world for Marc. He admires her lifestyle, her friends, their attitude, etc. It’s like they think they’re celebrities, and this clearly appeals to him. Whatever they have going on, he wants to be a part of it.
On page 13, Rebecca shows Marc how easy it is to steal from unlocked cars in rich, typically safe neighborhoods. The point made is that robbery isn’t so difficult. It’s so easy, in fact, that these characters, who don’t seem particularly intelligent, can do it.
The more I think about it, this might be the inciting incident, however i’m going to stick with the moment they first meet on page 9 because Marc is our protagonist. Yes, robbery is new to him, but it’s not new to Rebecca. The status quo of Marc’s life starts to change when he meets Rebecca so that by the time they rob the vehicles, he’s already on his way towards the lock in moment.
The lock in and end of Act 1 is on page 21. This is when Marc goes home and admires a photo of him and his new friends on Facebook. We’ve already met all the necessary characters in Rebecca’s friend group, and we’ve seen Rebecca and Marc rob a house, that of Marc’s out of town friend. In this first robbery, Rebecca leads the way, and Marc expresses fear that they shouldn’t be doing this. Later, at the club (which is the height of their existence), Marc sees Paris Hilton and is amazed. It’s clear he wants to be like her and so do his friends.
In sequence 3, we get the first voice over of Marc from the future. He says… “I loved her, I really did. She was the first person I felt like was my best friend… I loved has almost as a sister, that’s what made this situation so hard.”
They rob Paris Hilton’s house, just Rebecca and Marc, and then they go back again with their other friends. The group celebrates back at the nightclub, again the height of their existence, kind of like the coffee shop in Friends. At this point everything is going well, too well in fact.
Sequence 4, I think, begins on page 32. I’m a little fuzzy on this because the first sequence (and act) are so short. Typically the first act ends around page 25 to 30. Here, though, things start to get a little more complicated. After leaving the club, one of the friends, Chloe, gets into a bad car accidents and is charged with a DUI. The next day at school, Chloe brags about her court-mandated community service. To these friends, all that seems to matter is publicity whether it’s for them or in regards to taking down those who are famous.
In the fourth sequence, the break ins have become routine. Rebecca simply texts Marc: “let’s go to Paris” and suddenly they’re back in Paris Hilton’s house. It’s that easy.
They then decide to rob another house, riding the high of the ease of their break ins. This time it’s Audrina Partridge. Then they break into Megan Fox’s house and then Orlando Bloom’s house. As this goes on, things start to get a little more twisted. In one instance, they find a gun, then we elaborate on one girl’s relationship with an older man who comes off as only extremely creepy. On page 43 there is a mention of the surveillance camera at Orlando Bloom’s house. While there, they find a handful of rolexes which Marc later sells for $5,000. We know they’re closer to getting caught, and we know Marc is more culpable now than every before because this is the first concrete example of him stealing stuff. Before he was just along for the ride, watching his friends try on the celebrities’ clothes and jewelry. Even if he was stealing, we never focused on what he stole. Now, however, there’s evidence.
There is a scene, on page 53, in which we’re told this…
By this point, the break ins are more than a habit, they’re considered a right.
Once we’re in sequence 5, past the midpoint, things get more complicated, as I touched on earlier. The characters become aware that they’ve been caught on surveillance, and only Marc frets about it.
They break into another house, Rachel Bilson’s, and narrowly evade detection. When Marc tells us through voiceover that Rebecca was getting cocky, we move in sequence 6. Now, what’s hypocritical about Marc calling Rebecca cocky is that we’ve seen that they’re all cocky, in that scene description above.
Either way, in the sixth sequence the walls start to close in, even if they don’t know it. The girls brag about their break ins at a party, and the audience knows this is a horrible idea. They continue their break ins, in a montage of robbery and drug use, and though this is, to them, a continuation of their good fortune, to us it becomes a little more dark and twisted. They have gone so far down the rabbit hole, that they don’t notice there’s no way out.
The police, we see, have figured out who they are when they connect certain images to Facebook photos and recognize stolen jewelry and clothes. Then they make the arrests, starting with Marc, and Act 2 ends on page 73.
What’s interesting about this is that we see almost everyone (except a girl named Sam and also Rebecca) get arrested, like it’s that scene from The Godfather in which Michael Corleone executes all his enemies, but we start with Marc. It seems like we would end with him since he’s the most important character in our viewing experience because we see everything through his eyes.
The act ends with the police unable to arrest Rebecca because she has left town to stay with her father in Las Vegas.
In Sequence 7 (Act 3), we get that sense that Rebecca didn’t simply go to Vegas to visit her father but rather because she knew the walls were closing in. We’re told that Marc is “sad and betrayed.” He discovers that Rebecca’s once public Facebook profile (where she flaunted her thefts) is now private and locked. The police, though do eventually get to her. After Rebecca’s arrest, she is the only person to claim she’s not responsible.
Sequence 8 is all about the aftermath. We see the sentencing each character gets (Marc and Rebecca each get 4 years in prison), and then we see the interviews conducted with the friends from which we’ve been hearing these quick quotes of Marc in the future.
Since we know they all get caught, the only thing at stake is Marc’s and Rebecca’s friendship. It ends with her not looking at him, possibly seeing him as a traitor of some kind (but he didn’t rat her out), and they both seem to lose in the end. At the same time, their friendship felt completely underplayed, like it never mattered.
At first, this came off to me as underdeveloped. If their friendship is the crux of the story, it should be given more time and focus. But as I wrote earlier, their friendship started with a fairly bland conversation. Their entire friendship feels false. I mean, it’s based on crimes, both robbery and drugs. There is nothing really genuine about them, or at least about Rebecca. She is manipulative and Marc is easily manipulated.
So that empty feeling I had when the script ended, well I think it’s intentional. These aren’t wholesome characters. They idolize celebrities and reality stars, and they spend their time playing dress up and snorting coke. The friendship among this band of thieves is as unsustainable as the criminal lifestyle the briefly took on. So I think now that this is all the point.
In some ways this feels like a coming of age story. It’s about a group of young teenagers, most notably Marc who we see is clearly struggling to find a place in the world, who succeed and then fail and learn something from it, ideally. But the story ends with one of the girls, Nicki, promoting her brand and basically bragging about how she was locked up in the cell next to Lindsay Lohan’s in jail. She, like Rebecca and possibly all the others, learned absolutely nothing.
So this isn’t a coming of age story because in those types of stories, you take something with you from your failures. The Bling Ring is just a moment in these kids’ life that is destined to burn out. There is nothing to learn from it for the characters, but there is something to learn from it for us. We glorify these kids’ crimes like we glorify reality tv stars, and it’s ultimately pointless, vapid and full of nothing. So it’s important that we see through the facade of these characters because they’re just like the people they idolize and hopefully we aren’t.