Mary Harron’s take on the Manson Family features strong performances but brings little else to the true crime table.
August of this year marks the bleakest of anniversaries. It’ll be fifty years since the Manson murders, an event that brought the “peace and love” sixties to a swift and violent end, and one that still remains a stubbornly present topic in American pop culture, even after Charles Manson’s death in 2017.
Because quietly letting the anniversary pass would simply be too tasteful and considerate, no less than four movies at least tangentially related to the event have been slated for release this year, ranging from supernatural junk horror (The Haunting of Sharon Tate, in which the doomed actress foresees her own death) to Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Falling somewhere in the middle is Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which just manages to stop itself from crossing the line between empathetic and exploitative.
Written by Guinevere Turner, who previously worked with Harron in American Psycho, the film focuses largely on the “Manson Girls,” the bedraggled runaways Manson coerced into murdering at least seven people. While not the main character, as the title of the movie suggests Charles Manson looms large over everything, controlling every aspect of the girls’ lives, even when they’re separated from him in prison.
Manson is played by Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, which upon first appearance may seem like a tactical error, being that Smith is six feet tall and Manson was just 5’2”. Though you might be hoping for some Lord of the Rings-style forced perspective, Smith works around this mostly by hunching over to make himself look slightly shorter. He puts in a strong enough performance that the fact that he doesn’t really look like Manson (like, at all) becomes less of an issue.
But, again, it’s not really his story. The film opens after the murders have already taken place, and three of the girls, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, 13 Reasons Why), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon, Imposters) are in protective custody, jailed in adjacent cells. Prison social worker Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie) is assigned to instruct and counsel the girls, but they’re mostly interested in talking about Charlie, and his delusions about moving underground to wait out the apocalypse. Though their glassy-eyed grins and obedient, childlike personas are creepy more than anything else, Karlene quickly develops a motherly attachment to the girls, as she tries to help them break the powerful psychological hold Charlie has over them.
Flashbacks are told largely from Leslie’s perspective after she’s recruited to live at Spahn Ranch, where the love is free and the drugs are plentiful. The only payment required is giving over total ownership of yourself, body and soul, to Charlie. It takes not even a minute before Leslie is utterly enraptured by Charlie’s brand of babbling hippie-dippy jive. Though there are moments in which it’s clear she knows that she’s in a dangerous situation, mostly she gives in to it, for reasons which remain frustratingly unclear. Maybe it’s from taking so much acid Timothy Leary would drop his monocle, as the real Leslie Van Houten claimed, or maybe all of Charlie’s nonsense about “death of the ego” really has worn her down to nothing. Or it’s both, or it’s neither. At any rate, it will take years to undo the damage Charlie inflicts upon her, and she and the other girls will still spend the rest of their lives paying for it.
To say that Charlie Says is not as bad as it could have been is high praise for a film based on a real-life murder case, and particularly when it’s the Manson murders. In fact, often it’s pretty good, and that’s thanks largely to the performances, particularly Murray and Bacon. Perhaps because the film was written and directed by women, the girls aren’t hypersexualized or shot in a way that makes them look both alluring and scary. They operate in two modes, either like trapped, frightened animals or like they’ve just seen the face of God – which, of course, at least some of them thought they had.
To say that Charlie Says is not as bad as it could have been is high praise for a film based on a real life murder case, and particularly when it’s the Manson murders.
The film also notes the irony of Charlie’s “family” rebelling against the establishment and sneering at societal norms, yet still functioning as a microcosm of a patriarchal society, where the men are served their meals first, the women are there mostly to fuck and clean, and you never, ever question Charlie, even when he talks about how some of the girls will eventually sprout wings and turn into elves.
The most telling scene is when the supposedly mellow, “all is love” Charlie becomes enraged at a female visitor who’s unimpressed with both his nudity and his faux-philosophical gibberish. Desperate to be a star in spite of his supposed hatred for the rich and famous, he’s a small man (literally and figuratively) who’s driven to violence not because he believes in an impending apocalyptic race war, but because he couldn’t score a recording contract with Doris Day’s son.
Regrettably, the last half hour of Charlie Says falls into the usual trappings of true crime, recounting the details everyone already knows, such as Sharon Tate (played by Grace Van Dien) begging for her life and for the life of her unborn child. Like in Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the victims are bit players in their own deaths, though at least here they get a few minutes of screen time, and a couple lines of dialogue, rather than just being referred to off-screen.
The movie is at its most unsettling when the girls go on what are essentially training runs before the actual murders, sneaking into houses while the occupants are asleep and moving things around. We already know more than we’ll ever need to know about what happened during the murders, it’s the events leading up to them that remain unclear, thanks largely to dozens of unreliable narrators providing their own conflicting accounts over the years.
There’s still not a lot of insight into what made the girls fall for Charlie’s bullshit, other than the fact that they were naive, needy and fried out of their minds on drugs. Honestly, drugs were necessary to manage living with Charlie, who never stops talking, not for one minute, not even when he’s having sex. How did an illiterate petty criminal manage to get dozens of people to debase themselves and hurt others at his command?
For all its strengths as a film, we still don’t know any more after watching Charlie Says than we did before. It still doesn’t make any sense. A biker who takes a liking to Leslie and tries to talk her into fleeing the ranch with him speaks for the audience when he says, “You guys got a weird scene going on up here, man.”