Review: Charlie Says Struggles to Unearth New Truths About the Manson Murders

The film appears to be striving for humanistic understanding, but the end result is far too jumbled to have the proper impact.

Charlie Says
Photo: IFC Films

Based in part on Ed Sanders’s 1971 book The Family, the first complete account of the Manson murders, Mary Harron’s Charlie Says isn’t particularly interested in Charles Manson. This is a smart play in the end, because how much is left to be discovered about this lifelong scammer and psychopath? Instead, Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner—herself intimately connected to this kind of lifestyle, having spent her childhood in a different communal-living cult also known as “The Family”—come at their subject via three of Manson’s convicted female acolytes: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon).

The three women, shown at the start of the film in three side-by-side cells, are still under the spell of—and singing songs of praise for—good old “Charlie.” This is all much to the confusion of Karlene (Merritt Wever), an earnest but clear-eyed feminist social worker who takes it upon herself to try and educate the three. Turner’s screenplay is most focused in these jailhouse scenes, where Karlene patiently works at deprogramming the women with copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and nonjudgmental but still baffled inquiries about how they could believe the things Manson told them. Turner, however, has a hard time keeping a straight face as they rattle on about surviving the coming race war at the bottom of a deep cave and later sprouting wings like elves.) The seemingly contradictory mix of exuberant hippie love and brutally pointless violence that defined the adoring Manson family is just as creepily riveting here as it must have been during the trial, when Manson’s female followers mooned around the courthouse and flashed those sick, spacey smiles.

The film seems to want to unearth some kind of truth as the facades of the three jailed women begin to crack, evident in the way they reduce everything to whatever “Charlie says” and the inappropriately giggly friendships they try to strike up with Karlene and the prison guards. But even with their intense focus on how Leslie’s gut-gnawing guilt creeps up on her as Charlie’s teachings begin to fade, the filmmakers aren’t able to extract much of value from the material. Emma Cline’s loosely Manson-inspired 2016 novel The Girls does a far more revealing job of unearthing the psychological makeup of middle-class girls looking for revelation at the darkening edge of the ’60s, and would have likely made for more interesting source material.

When the film reverts to its flashback narrative surrounding Leslie’s induction into the Manson family at the ranch expropriated by the cult leader, the results are more dutiful than revelatory. Matt Smith puts in some nicely underplayed work as Manson, hitting the properly sly admixture of patriarchal threat, celebrity jealousy, neediness, and full-bore cultish mania. Harron and Turner’s eyes, however, are cast less toward Manson and his biker and musician friends (the Beach Boys’s Dennis Wilson among them) hunting for free sex than the alternately bullying and adoring lost girls. Dramatically and thematically, this was the right choice. In cult stories, the richest material is rarely found in the leaders, but in the seemingly sane folks who willingly and with very little overt coercion adopt insane worldviews.

But ultimately these sections of Charlie Says are wispy and ungrounded, particularly regarding Manson’s inexplicable sidekick, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who played a crucial role in both the Tate and LaBianca murders but remains a cipher here. When the flashback story ramps up to the murders, cutting back and forth to the imprisoned trio coming to grips (or not) with what they did, the filmmakers appear to be striving mightily for humanistic understanding, but the end result is far too jumbled to have the proper impact.

The film starts with the famous Joan Didion quote about the Manson killings: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” It suggests that what’s to follow will shed some light on this endlessly dissected incident and what it meant, if anything, about the nightmare counterpoint to the Summer of Love. But despite its admirably empathetic approach, Charlie Says sheds little light on the era and how it impacted the ability of a scrawny little grifter to hold such sway over these women that years after inducing them to be accomplices to murder, they still sang songs to his glory and wisdom.

 Cast: Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Merritt Wever, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Marianne Rendón, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford  Director: Mary Harron  Screenwriter: Guinevere Turner  Distributor: IFC Films  Running Time: 104 min  Rating: R  Year: 2019  Buy: Video

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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