Charles Manson is having a big year. Actually that moment occurred back in 1969, during a fateful summer he and his cult ended in mass murder. But with the grisly 50th anniversary upon us, we’re getting every sort of cinematic reworking from exploitative dreck like The Haunting of Sharon Tate to whatever the heck Quentin Tarantino is up to these days. Despite being a small, pathetic little monster desperate to act the big man, folks inexplicably can’t let Charlie go (and in the worst cases, romanticize him as some kind of iconoclastic rebel).
Charlie Says wisely avoids the cult of worship around Manson and even attempts to do the rare thing and change the often male gaze of the madman to a female one that’s studying the young women he brainwashed into murdering for him. The result attempts to be a paradigm shift in the way we examine Manson and his “family” by a director who’s no stranger to lethal cinematic carnage. Yet Mary Harron’s film is so conscious of its wading into dark waters that its attempts to stay dry leads to an occasionally intriguing but ultimately bloodless exercise in sympathy for the devil’s hands.
The picture is mostly set in the 1970s where three “Manson Girls,” as denoted by everyone including perhaps themselves, idle away in near isolation years after their crimes. Having not seen their beloved Charlie since the trial, Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) still hang on the ghosts of his words, reinforcing to one another his teachings while they sit in three adjacent cells, removed from the mass prison population despite their death sentences having been commuted.
Visiting teacher and academic Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) knows this in anathema to reversing their programming, which she makes her quiet crusade. She sees the women as not just tools of Manson’s spiteful mayhem, but victims in their own right of his possessiveness, like a predatory collector who turned women’s free will into the prizes he placed on a shelf. And as she talks through their memories, she travels back to the ’60s, a time when Manson’s word on a ratchet farm was treated like scripture heard from on high. Strumming his guitar, their “father,” played disarmingly by Matt Smith, journeys from failed wannabe rock star to delusional revolutionary—one who slowly leads his followers to the slaughter of others.
Much attention has and will continue to be made about the film’s casting of Matt Smith as Manson. The most youthful Doctor Who, and star of British entitlement on The Crown, Smith at a glance makes for a strange choice to be the guy who thought the Beatles’ White Album was a road map to a race war that ended with him as de facto king of black people. However, given his ease at inhabiting a charismatic alien who in a single wink and smile convinces young women to run away with him in a flying magic box, it perhaps shouldn’t be a stretch he’d play the darker hippie counterpoint of a mansplaining pied piper.
A visceral tangle of facial hair and wide smiles, Smith disappears into Charles Manson’s lazy insidiousness, wearing the American accent convincingly well. Likely to many Manson aficionados’ surprise, however, he doesn’t really portray Charlie as a god or demon of hypnotic thrall. Rather his Manson is diminutive and ultimately feeble, even at the height of his powers. This isn’t a case of miscasting but of attempting to shatter a myth. Manson wasn’t some vampiric lord of darkness, but a weak man who felt strong by inflicting his will on vulnerable and lonely girls with low self-esteem. Harron zeroes in on this pathetic streak and allows Smith to wallow in the faint measure of a man, likely finding a more truthful and detestable result than many Manson movies.
Of course the crux of this approach is it isn’t Manson’s movie despite the fact Smith is still able to dominate it. This film belongs to the women he subjugated, most primarily Leslie Van Houten, whose memories of coming to the farm are our entry point into the cult. Played with a stoic passivity by Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray, Lulu’s self-loathing is as understated as her awareness of how grim this scene is. Her inability to know herself is what made her a perfect target for Manson, but also makes for a slight center to anchor a film.
Cutting back to Leslie and several other Manson murderers’ slow dawning epiphany that Charlie was wrong, the picture makes clear via clunky dialogue and heavy-handed juxtaposition that these women’s fates are as much a tragedy as everything else Charles Manson touched. And while this is true, Harron and her frequent screenwriter Guinevere Turner nevertheless seem to hedge their bets and are unsure as to how to make their case. Minus a handful of scenes where Karlene Faith—whose real-life memoir of reaching these women served as source material—explains to peers the thesis of the movie, the film attempts to approach its subject matter with an apologetic sensitivity that verges on wishy washy. It knows Leslie, Susan, Pat, and many of the other women and men in the Manson Family it sympathizes with became sadistic murderers of strangers. Yet is ashamed of fully embracing that fact.
Curiously after Harron and Turner presented one of the cinematic touchstones for misogynistic monstrosities in American Psycho, they appear anxious to fully explore the breadth of their protagonists’ crimes here. This is likely in part due to the still queasy horror of the events, which a half-century later retain a psychic toll with knowledge of the real Sharon Tate being forced to beg for the life of her unborn baby (while eight and a half months pregnant) and her answer coming in mocking threats and brutal massacre. The film does not actually show that murder, and even Leslie’s most culpable act—stabbing Rosemary LaBianca multiple after she was already dead or near death—is done in extreme close-up where we study the carnage of the act on her soul but not not its toll on her victim.
This is again partially done to avoid the sickening exploitation that has become a cottage industry around these murders, but it also feels dishonest with itself and its protagonists. The movie wishes the women to own up to their crimes, but Charlie Says cannot look those deeds fully in the eye either. The movie thus rests in that uneasy darkness where the light of the right thing is a foreign concept. Unwilling to fully address their sins, the movie also cannot fully articulate if they should be forgiven after 50 years of penance—a fact that many still grapple with after a number of these convicted murderers have lived and died following decades of regret and remorse.
Charlie Says shies away from offering its own truth of who these women should be, or once were, and thus is reduced to mostly exist as an exercise of retelling a familiar horror from a slightly different vantage. In spite of being the Manson Girls’ story, it’s most comfortable when it’s about a slightly pettier Charlie begging for a record contract from the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and abusing his harem to fill a dark void that was bottomless. The movie stares into that abyss too, but then averts its gaze, not finding anything new worth saying after all these years.
Charlie Says premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1. It opens wide on May 17.