Available on DVD from Mon 29 Jul 2019
The life and crimes of Charles Manson and his ‘family’ have fascinated the world for half a century now. There are several reasons why the sordid actions of an otherwise unremarkable habitual criminal and charlatan have lodged like a blade in the collective conscious. It’s seen as one of the nails in the countercultural coffin along with the violence at Altamont, it links cult activity directly into the Flower Power phenomenon (and provided the template for the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh), and it involved the high-profile victim of Sharon Tate. As the fate of Elizabeth Short, the ‘Black Dahlia’ demonstrates, Hollywood loves to cannibalise itself and the murders have been depicted on film numerous times over the years. The low-budget indie Charlie Says is likely to be crushed beneath the pop culture juggernaut that Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will undoubtedly prove to be, but deserves attention for a thoughtful approach to the subject.
Charlie Says focuses on young Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) as she becomes sucked into the orbit of Manson (Matt Smith) and his group of hippie dropouts living off the grid on the Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles County and the build-up to the murders in August 1969. The timeline jumps three years to prison where Van Houten and fellow family members Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) are serving life imprisonment having had their death sentences commuted. Grad student Karleen Faith (Merrit Wever) is employed to act as a kind of social worker and attempt to deprogram the women, still devoted to Manson and his crazed ideas of end times and race wars.
Having Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner on board as director and writer seems like the ideal fit. Between them, they have successfully made a cult career of presenting both outsider icons and delusional male violence. There’s Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol, legendary 50s pinup The Notorious Bettie Page and, of course, American Psycho. The Manson Family would fit snugly in a Venn diagram of their previous work. The biggest dilemma for Harron and Turner is how to foreground the women at the centre of the story while depicting persuasively how they come to fall under Manson’s eschatological spell.
They’re only partially successful. While the post-Manson scenes in prison try to offer some insight in Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins as people, these don’t capture the attention like those featuring the principal villain, despite a compassionate performance from Wever and a wounded and open Murray who does her best as an audience surrogate but suffers from a script that never quite gets across how the women are seduced by Manson. This is also certainly not the fault of Smith. Even in Doctor Who he gave the impression of suppressed derangement, and he allows this to burst through. It’s perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, but Charlie Says undoubtedly suffers when he’s off-screen.
Nonetheless, there’s compassion for the women at the heart of the film that has been lacking in other depictions of the events, and there’s a studious attempt to avoid sensationalism. It’s true that there is little that explains just how a frustrated musician with a Napoleon complex could seduce so many people with his crazed apocalyptic fantasies and his warped vision of free love, and other reviews have pointed this out. However, it’s arguable that Harron and Turner are making a wider point about the nature of demagoguery and the willingness of people to be led. It’s easy to look back with fifty years of hindsight and realise little has changed. Is “Helter Skelter” that different from MAGA or obvious lies daubed on the side of a bus? This is where Charlie Says excels. It’s not in the curiously flat direction, or the muddy split scenarios, but in the uncomfortable sensation it leaves behind that we’re all far more open to this kind of manipulation than we may think.