Studio: IFC Films
Director: Mary Harron
Writer: Guinevere Turner
Producer: Dana Guerin, Cindi Rice, John Frank Rosenblum, Jeremy Rosen
Stars: Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Merritt Wever, Suki Waterhouse, Chace Crawford, Annabeth Gish, Matt Smith
An educator challenges three incarcerated women from the Manson Family to finally face the horrible reality of their crimes.
It’s not just you. I’m burned out on Manson-related movies too.
“Charlie Says” marks the sixth Manson movie I’ve reviewed in as many years. Though if I had to guess prior to checking my archives, I would have wagered that number was twice as high.
With Charles Manson’s death and the 50thanniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders coming to pass, hopefully we’ve crested the peak and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” can seal the cult’s cinematic coffin for a while.
In the meantime, there’s the matter of “Charlie Says” to tend to. Formerly titled “Nobody,” the film frames the well-known case from the perspective of ‘Manson Girl’ Leslie Van Houten and Karlene Faith, an educator tasked with challenging Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins to confront their crimes while still under Manson’s influence in prison.
You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder what material remains to be mined from a true crime tale retold more often than an Aesop fable. But if anyone can unearth a fresh perspective, it’s the woman who made Bret Easton Ellis’ banal novel “American Psycho” infinitely more interesting as a film adaptation. This time, director Mary Harron uses Ed Sanders’ nonfiction book “The Family” as a springboard via Guinevere Turner’s script. Harron endeavors to create a somber personal portrait of three women broken to begin with made more so by circumstances as well as choices. Through its thematic underpinnings, “Charlie Says” stokes several fires of feminist empowerment, although its sometimes-scattered storytelling openly invites bad takes regarding how it represents its subjects.
“Charlie Says” doesn’t dwell on the deaths. Sharon Tate doesn’t appear until 85 minutes in and only once is a knife seen penetrating flesh. Save for some sequences of victims pleading or being bound, and killers bathed in blood, the film edits around the actual murders.
“Charlie Says” instead opens calmly, assured that viewers no longer need detailed crime scene reenactments. With little fanfare, a single shot simply shows Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Tex Watson in the aftermath of killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Tex swigs milk from a fridge with “healter skelter” semi-visible in blood on the door. Krenwinkel collects soiled clothes and gnaws a watermelon rind.
This prologue seeds a reminder that no matter what else the movie implies about them, these people are murderers. “Charlie Says” may present them as tragic figures, but this asterisk stipulates that they are not to be seen as sympathetic.
Over her arc of coming to Spahn Ranch as a naïve runaway to becoming a devoted Manson acolyte, “Charlie Says” cautiously steers clear of disconnecting Leslie Van Houten from responsibility. In one jailhouse moment, Krenwinkel tearfully expresses regret over forcing Van Houten to stab Rosemary LaBianca’s dead body just to ensure she was incriminated. (Van Houten played a bigger role in reality.) Van Houten allays Krenwinkel’s sudden conscience, confirming that she didn’t do anything she didn’t want to.
Indeed, Van Houten volunteers to accompany the creepy crawling crew to the LaBianca house, even when she knew what happened at Tate’s residence the night before. Although it emphasizes Manson’s manipulation, “Charlie Says” never completely removes Van Houten’s agency. She is presented with multiple opportunities to leave the Family, yet intentionally elects to disavow her mother and spurn a potential suitor to remain unquestioningly loyal to Manson.
That odd ambivalence regarding what it really wants to say about Van Houten lands “Charlie Says” in a noncommittal limbo that lessens its impact. Subtext suggests the movie’s main messages revolve around the consequences of confronting shattered delusions, or finding doubt at inopportune times. The reality appears less dramatic than that. Van Houten’s real-life attitude of defiance takes shape onscreen as uncertain insecurity, creating a character that comes across as more confusing than complex.
Actress Hannah Murray still sells her with wonderful wide-eyed fascination. Murray’s performance arguably goes too far into innocent bumpkin territory, sometimes seeming like a “gosh, golly!” girl who accidentally wandered into a terrible horror story. Yet hitched to Sosie Bacon as Krenwinkel and Merritt Wever as Karlene Faith in the second standout role, Murray manages to push and pull engaging amounts of emotion in collaboration with her costars. Wever’s expressions of “I can’t believe they’re still brainwashed” shock are particularly effective at documenting the high hill to climb for these women to finally face reality.
Matt Smith carries the charisma to create a strong Manson-ish antagonist. However, he’s too recognizable to truly melt into Manson. While his quick cadence schtick warms up to create a suitably eerie weirdo, Smith always seems two ticks shy of evolving past the presence of being Doctor Who in a beard.
That notion applies to the movie too. “Charlie Says” feels like it constantly circles around the story it yearns to tell without cutting conclusively into its core. You can almost see the movie losing the scent of its subject in distracted cutaways like Squeaky Fromme biting through Mary Brunner’s umbilical cord (rumor has it Manson actually did that deed) or ranch owner George Spahn stroking one girl’s leg as if to say, “meanwhile, this is still going on.”
Stylistic filmmaking and strong acting nevertheless succeed in drawing out drama. Mary Harron just doesn’t get “Charlie Says” all the way to where it wants to go, leaving its total value as another hat in the Manson movie ring open to as much interpretation as the film’s overall intention. Without absolving anyone of rightful blame, “Charlie Says” perhaps shows us horror comes from acknowledging that murderers aren’t always born. Sometimes they are made.
Review Score: 65