Director: Mary Harron
Screenplay: Guinevere Turner
Starring: Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever
Duration: 110 min
BBFC Certification: 15
In the dark, twisted annuals of serial killers and their crimes, Charles Manson stands out as a unique figure. Despite being responsible for some of the most infamous murders of the twentieth century, the fact still stands that he never actually physically killed anyone (although there is a significant amount of conjecture on that score). The crimes for which Manson is most infamous were actually committed by members of his ‘family’, acting, supposedly, under his orders. This horribly unique scenario, then, raises some interesting questions. Where does the guilt and blame for those murders lie? Does it rest on the people who actually performed the crimes themselves or on the man whose malign influence they were acting under?
In Mary Harron’s Charlie Says (originally released in the USA a few years ago but now debuting on Amazon in the UK), the cult director, along with frequent writer and collaborator Guinevere Turner, actually go one step further. What if, their new film suggests, Manson’s disciples were actually victims themselves?
Charlie Says utilises a back and forth narrative in order to explore this thorny subject matter. A portion of the film takes place in the prison where three of Manson’s female followers, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) are serving life sentences. Isolated from the rest of the prison population, they continue to live in a fantasy, still heavily under Manson’s influence even though it has been three years since the crimes took place. Karlene Faith, a young graduate student, volunteers in the prison by helping inmates discuss and talk about their various crimes. When the opportunity arises to teach and talk to the Manson killers, she attempts to make them face the reality of what they did.
These portions of the film are easily the most interesting and it is a shame that Charlie Says devotes the vast majority of it’s running time to flashbacks to Spahn Ranch, the home of the Manson Family. Here, we follow new arrival Leslie Van Houten and watch as she slowly gets indoctrinated into Manson’s cult, leading up to the infamous murders that took place in August 1969.
Perhaps because of the seriousness of the subject matter, Harron reigns in some of her more stylistic flourishes witnessed in her previous period films I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page. Her dark humour, which came to the fore most brilliantly in American Psycho, is also notably absent here; this is a far more subdued and serious film that doesn’t require embellishments in order to portray the horror and tragedy that lies at its core.
The early scenes set at Spahn Ranch work well. Harron and Turner effectively set up the power dynamics that existed between Manson and his followers and manage to skilfully portray those followers as lost, insecure young people looking for some kind of meaning in a world that, for them, no longer seems to hold any. In these early scenes, it is certainly easy to see Manson’s ‘family’ members as victims, their innocence and naivety slowly soured under his dark, twisted interruption of the hippie ideal. Under Manson, the ‘Summer of Love’ very much became a winter of coldness and cruelty.
Both Hannah Murray (expanding on the sweet meekness of Gilly in Game of Thrones) and Sosie Bacon (yes, she’s related) excel at portraying their character’s initial adoration of Manson during these early scenes, as well as conveying the eventual doubt and guilt that bubbles underneath their sweet exteriors like boiling water as they lie secluded in their prison cells.
After Manson fails to get a record deal, the mood of Charlie Says turns darker still and it is here that the film begins to falter as it attempts to chart the progress that eventually led to the murders of seven innocent people. While we are shown what happened, Harron and Turner never effectively manage to explain why. The answer to this perhaps could have been found in the film’s jail scenes, but these are too brief and over-simplified to provide a satisfactory answer. It is clear that these young girls are victims up to a point but the film fails to continually paint them in that light in view of the horrific murders they later committed.
Part of the problem lies with Matt Smith’s portrayal as Manson. A fine and capable actor, he manages to nail Manson’s eccentricities and pettiness, charting his decline from wannabe musician to racist egomaniac with skill and subtlety. Yet he lacks the dark, ensnaring charisma that is arguably so vital in portraying this infamous, enigmatic bogeyman. You need to believe that Manson’s followers would do anything he said and the reversion of the girls culpability in the murders rests on how convincing Mason is as a manipulator; without a charismatic Manson, it is simply harder to make the argument that the girls were brainwashed. Smith does well in the role, but it is tantalising to think how the film would have panned out if Damon Herriman (who played Manson so chillingly in both David Fincher’s Mindhunter and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) portrayed him here instead, with Herriman channelling far more effectively the dark intensity that made Manson so dangerously mesmerising to those few who fell under his spell.
Yet Charlie Says nevertheless should be appreciated for tackling a controversial subject matter. If the film doesn’t succeed in fully convincing you that these girls were victims in their own right, it at least makes you begin to think that way and should be applauded for its bravery in attempting to humanise the perpetrators behind some of the most brutal crimes in American history. In the current political climate, it also raises important questions about male manipulation and exploitation of women.
Ultimately, however, trying to make sense of the Manson murders is perhaps too much for a two hour film to accomplish (Emma Cline’s 2017 novel The Girls is far more effective at picking apart the psychological motivations behind the murders, even if it is not directly about the Manson family). It is telling that both Charlie Says and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, released in the same year and dealing with roughly the same subject, both conclude with a moment of wishful fantasy. Perhaps the easiest way to make sense of the Manson Family’s terrible crimes is to imagine a Hollywood ending for this most tragic of Hollywood tales.