Fifty years after his reign of terror, the crimes of Charles Manson continues to fascinate people. This year there are at least three movies about the Manson Family, including Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. American Psycho director Mary Harron takes on the infamy of the Manson Family with Charlie Says, a drama that doesn’t approach the terrifying true story in a conventional manner. Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner create a haunting portrait of how a trio of all-American girls became warped murders as part of a crazed cult that on top of murdering seven people, including Sharon Tate, also killed the good vibes of peace and love that dominated the hippy movement of the late ‘60s. When films like Netflix’s recent Ted Bundy film are more than willing to further mythologize infamous murderers, the grounded demystification of Charles Manson in Charlies Says is a refreshing breath of fresh air.
Charlie Says focuses mainly on Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), later dubbed Lulu by Charles Manson (Matt Smith). One aspect of the story has her as an unrepentant killer imprisoned alongside her fellow Mansonites Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) as they remain devoted to their murderous messiah. With the death penalty temporarily abolished (as it was for a few years in the ‘70s), graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) is brought in to provide some kind of rehabilitation for the Manson devotees.
Through these conversations the film flashes back to when Leslie Van Houten found herself in the orbit of Charles Manson, and how a young woman from Altadena, California could be seduced by a hack wannabe songwriter who spent most of his life behind bars. Leslie eventually would live on Manson’s commune at Spahn Ranch, a rundown movie set for westerns owned and operated by 80-year-old George Spahn. In Manson’s orbit is Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) of the Beach Boys, who keeps Manson’s dreams of music stardom alive. The times at Spahn Ranch are fueled by sex, drugs, and petty crimes that keep these outcasts afloat. Things take a dark turn as Manson’s dreams are dashed by the rejection of record producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian). The rage of rejection is what triggers Manson deeper into his madness, his sermons becoming increasingly violent and unhinged. We all know how this American tragedy ends.
As the messianic madman, Matt Smith gives a decidedly unremarkable performance. And yet that is actually part of the strength of Charlie Says. Mary Harron is obviously intrigued by how anyone could find this deranged criminal charismatic enough to devote their lives to his lunatic ramblings, and Smith being so ineffective does a lot to unwind the myths that have made Manson so captivating. It’s a film much more interested in illustrating how Manson would hone in on insecurities and apply whatever leverage he had over his adherents to force them into complete submission. What the film winds up creating is quite possibly one of the most disturbing portrayals of the cycle of abuse. The women who became devoted to Manson were victims of his manipulation and in turn created more victims. Charlie Says isn’t out to absolve the women for the horrific crimes they’ve committed but to peer into how easily innocence can be corrupted and utilized for pure evil.
Charlie Says is not about redemption. It’s about the struggle to get these women who will be locked up for the rest of their lives to be able to realize the horrors they’ve inflicted on the world. Merritt Weaver’s Karlene Faith (whom wrote the book that inspired the movie but has no involvement in the film) is presented with unenviable task of breaking these women’s devotion to a deranged murderer and terrible songwriter. Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner don’t create a typical psychological film, instead it’s like a heist movie where we have to patiently watch as Karlene cracks the combination to the nigh-impenetrable safe in which their souls are locked.
We will continue to be fascinated by mass murderers, especially the likes of Charles Manson and his adherents. But there’s a fine line between fascination and mythologizing, and not too many films understand that difference. However, Mary Harron clearly knows the difference and uses Charlie Says to expose Manson for the abusive fraud that he was, one that browbeat his followers into committing some of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century. Not all of Manson’s victims found their way to the grave, many of them found their way to a life in prison and an overwhelming guilt that they will carry with them forever.
Director Mary Harron demythologizes Charles Manson with Charlie Says, a fascinating examination of the cycle of abuse perpetrated by Manson on his followers as it follows Leslie Van Houten’s journey from acolyte to infamous inmate.