‘Charlie Says’ takes the Manson narrative down new roads

It’s a very interesting year to be alive considering there’s not two, but three movies about the Manson family coming out in 2019 and so far two have completely blown me away. Say what you will about the good taste of The Haunting of Sharon Tate but that film presented a revisionist story that was, dare I say, cathartic? And now director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner, the duo behind the modern-day classic, American Psycho, reteam to tell the Manson story from an angle that feels authentic, feminist, and frightening. It’s easy to see where people will turn away from Charlie Says. It’s not a clean, sexy look at the Manson girls and is, at times, aimless and meandering in its storytelling, but that’s the point. Harron and Turner remove themselves from the Manson mystique entirely to tell a story about young womanhood and the most toxic of men.

There aren’t many entry points into the Manson narrative without having to either create a wholly sympathetic person or revising history. Instead Harron and Turner open the film with a simple question: “Are these women victims?” It’s been three years since the infamous Manson trial and prison teacher Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) is tasked with instructing the trio of Manson women house in the California Women’s Institution. The three girls have been kept in isolation since the death penalty was commuted, but they’re in limbo, perceived as too dangerous (or future victims) for general population yet not legally deemed worthy of being on Death Row. Weaver’s Faith understands how women end up in jail, oftentimes the victims of domestic violence or other circumstances because the system is broken. Despite several other women telling her the Manson girls aren’t worthy of sympathy or her time, Faith is intrigued by their naivety. These girls, most teenagers at the time, truly believed they’d become elves, live in a cave, and survive an apocalypse.

Telling the story through the eyes of Manson acolyte Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) is interesting, as the woman who has continually requested parole (and been denied) is perceived by certain groups of people as the most deserving of freedom. Murray’s Van Houten is quiet, perceptive. She eyes Manson (played with such garishness and fear by Matt Smith) with intrigue, but never seems truly awed by him. In fact, there are moments of doubt. She questions Manson at several points, only to be ridiculed or humiliated, and that’s before the string of violence against women is presented. Harron and Turner create a movie that’s sympathetic in its portrayal though there’s always an awareness that these women were participants; the question becomes where is the line between willing and unwilling?

What separates Charlie Says from other Manson narratives is what it doesn’t show. Sharon Tate gets a cursory cameo – reiterating a story that remains apocryphal – but those murders remain on the fringes of our mind. We never see them and we don’t need to, the movie says. The movie, instead, focuses on the forgotten victims: the LaBiancas. (This is also possibly because Van Houten was only convicted for her part in those deaths and was not present for the Tate killings.) Even then, Turner and Harron don’t focus on the violence, keeping the camera focused on the killers only, their actions, their reactions. For a movie so steeped in violence there’s remarkably little here, probably because the script’s true emphasis is on the emotional manipulation and gaslighting between Manson and his women.

Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron

The girls assembled certainly look like teenagers who’d be living out in a dusty ranch with no regular plumbing. Harron shows real women with real bodies, not runway models masquerading as homeless girls. When there’s nudity on-screen it’s presented matter-of-factly, not to titillate and, in many instances, showing how men exploit female nudity for their own means. Murray’s Van Houten is a safe center by which to revolve things around, but the real scene stealer is Sosie Bacon as Patricia Krenwinkle. Bacon plays Pat as a true believer and a woman of abuse. She doesn’t just buy Manson’s rhetoric wholeheartedly, she also willfully ignores the abuse he inflicts. When he slaps a woman at the dinner table Bacon shows the flickers of rage and disgust she has for Manson, yet slaps on a frightened smile, aware that going along with things is safer than defying. Private Life breakout actress Kayli Carter plays Squeaky Fromme but she isn’t given much more than a few wacky scenes. Weaver, to her credit, is so compelling as Karlene Faith. She’s a cypher who buries her life and her pain from the girls but it’s obvious she understands abuse and torment.

It’d be impossible not to talk about a Manson movie without discussing the man playing the monster. This is a game-changing performance for former Dr. Who star, Matt Smith and it’ll be interesting to see how fans respond. He captures Manson’s penchant for rapid-fire philosophizing and presents him as a man in love with the sound of his own voice. What’s fantastic is Smith’s performance, coupled with Turner’s writing and Harron’s direction takes Manson’s power away from him. He’s shown as little more than an untalented man who believed he was special. If Patrick Bateman represented male excess and entitlement in the ’80s – where every man was told he was a king – Harron and Turner showcase Manson as representative of the ’70s idea that men were men and should be deified. Kudos to also including a highly nuanced scene of Manson’s racism, which tends to get overshadowed.

Charlie Says is a difficult movie that strips away the Hollywood veneer to a well-worn true crime story. Harron and Turner haven’t lost an ounce of their bite and make a film that’s relevant to our thoughts on masculinity today while showing that these men have always been around.

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