Charlie Says (2019)
Coming up on the 50th anniversary of the infamous tragedy on which Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says” is based, it’s no surprise there is an influx of Manson-related films coming down the pipe — including one by Quentin Tarantino. Many previous iterations have leaned pulpy and exploitative with lots of gore, orgies and/or excessive ogling of Sharon Tate. Even the most tasteful of filmmakers could easily succumb to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll inherent in this true crime story, but Harron takes a restrained approach — she mainly examines the psychological manipulation that Charlie Manson inflicts on his female followers.
This is not to say Harron avoids the temptations of such specific and culturally significant historical recreation: she’s clearly having fun with the costuming, music and casting choices. But instead of obsessing over deerskin suits, unshaven armpits and acid trips (don’t despair – all three are present), Harron remains vigilantly aware of the timelessness of it all. “Charlie Says” is a #metoo story of emotional manipulation and sexual degradation that doesn’t belong to any specific era.
For those unfamiliar, on August 8th and 9th, 1969, several members of The Manson Family Cult, led by Charles Manson, broke into two Hollywood Hills homes and murdered five people – including actress Sharon Tate, the eight-months pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski. Many say this was the day the Sixties truly ended.
Unlike Harron’s previous foray into serial killer mayhem (2000’s “American Psycho”), Harron doesn’t dwell on the violence and gore prevalent in this story. “Charlie Says” opens on the direct aftermath of the Manson Family murders but devotes little screen time to the actual crimes. Instead, most of the film takes place in the maximum-security cell block holding Manson’s murderous proteges: Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel.
The women are endearing, liked by every guard and warden at their prison. Their performances are all perky etiquette and sing-song charm, presented without a whiff of skepticism — Harron clearly cares for these women and wants the audience to like them too. When the trio meet Karlene Faith, the graduate student in charge of their education — whose book the film is based on — it’s clear she too will fall for their charms.
Even though the movie implicitly asks the audience to like these women (a questionable request, but we’ll get there), the trio are not given much in the way of distinct personalities. This could be intentional — after all, they are so brainwashed that they begin every sentence with “Charlie says.” Even so, it doesn’t make it easy to empathize with them as individuals.
Hannah Murray has the most to work with as Van Houten a.k.a. LuLu, the audience’s stand-in on the girls’ journey from initiation into the Manson Family to its downfall. Given her lovable turn as Gilly in “Game of Thrones,” audiences already be familiar with her wide-eyed and innocent vibe. But beyond gaping in awe at the wild events surrounding her, she remains frustratingly passive.
Matt Smith, on the other hand, nails it as Charlie Manson. The former Doctor Who star delivers the brooding psychosis that’s so striking in Manson’s infamous mugshots while still being seductive enough to believably pull off his mind tricks. When what “Charlie says” is questioned, Matt Smith gives us pitch-perfect hints of weakness and hypocrisy in a crescendo of reactions, from embarrassed schoolboy to bigoted murderer. It’s no surprise that the movie’s most thrilling moments occur in Leslie’s Spahn Ranch flashbacks, where Smith is given free range to chew the scenery and spout wild one-liners.
Harron imbues these scenes with palpable atmosphere, relying on sound and music to shape Charlie’s world in all its contradictory glory. In the film’s strongest scene, an orgiastic encounter set to psychedelic bongos and the moans of drugged out hippies is pierced by the heaving sobs of one of Manson’s female followers. No explanation of her sobs is given, nor is one needed to make this turn impactful. In subtly disturbing moments like this, Harron successfully disrupts Charlie’s hypnotic embrace and sets the tone for the darkness ahead.
These disruptions of otherwise idyllic memories are essential to the success of the flashback structure. With each flashback, Leslie makes new realizations about the warning signs she missed, often in thematic relation to one of Karlene’s lessons. It’s an intelligent if obvious choice to frame the film in a way that asks, “how did we get here?” rather than “where did we get to?” No one will be surprised that things end poorly, but it’s the descent into destruction that makes this story so compelling. No matter how artful and immersive the flashbacks may be, Harron’s answer to the question “how did we get here” remains simplistic.
Through heavy-handed dialogue, Harron seems to blame Manson’s misogyny almost entirely for the murders. Don’t get me wrong — misogyny is responsible for many crimes against humanity, but this focus ignores the many other motivations for the crimes and the many other guilty parties involved. Harron draws parallels between incarcerated women who killed their abusive husbands in self-defense and the Manson trio, insinuating that they deserve similar levels of understanding and potentially even forgiveness for their actions.
I want to follow Harron’s lead and empathize with Van Hoouten and the rest, but I can’t help seeing them for what they are: cold-blooded murderers of innocent people, including a pregnant woman — a far cry from a woman fighting back against her abuser. This misguided comparison takes the call for sympathy a step too far for my liking.