From I Shot Andy Warhol through American Psycho to the Netflix miniseries Alias Grace, Mary Harron has shown a fascination for homicidal madness as a violent prism for social commentary. So the Manson Family is a subject firmly in her wheelhouse, reuniting the director with her past screenwriter collaborator Guinevere Turner, and arriving ahead of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has an overlapping though seemingly broader focus. As a reflection on a national trauma, Charlie Says is absorbing if only intermittently effective, but it has the distinction of bringing a female gaze to arguably the most notorious crime spree in American history.
While Turner’s screenplay credits Ed Sanders’ book The Family as its principal source, the movie also draws significantly on the writings of Karlene Faith, a feminist criminologist who founded the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project. She is portrayed here with intelligence and compassion by the always terrific Merritt Wever. As a graduate student in 1972, while conducting a voluntary rehabilitative teaching program at the California Institution for Women, Faith accepted the invitation of progressive warden Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish) to extend her women’s studies classes to private sessions with the three “Manson Women” imprisoned in the Special Security Unit, away from the general inmate population.
The result as depicted here was a consciousness-raising program aimed at pulling Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) out of the brainwashed loop in which they remained locked three years into their confinement. Faith wants to lead them back to rediscover the women they were before they became Manson’s pawns. She takes on that responsibility while her colleagues in the teaching program balk at channeling their energy and resources into helping the perpetrators of such horrific crimes.
As such, Charlie Says is very much a movie for the Time’s Up era, questioning, as it does and not for the first time, whether Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins were victims as much as cold-blooded killers of blameless people chosen as random representatives of toxic privilege. Its contemporary relevance should nudge the limited commercial prospects of this unsensationalized chronicle, as will the enduring grip of the 1969 Manson killings on the public imagination.
Issues pertaining to free will, manipulation, gender politics and abuse of power have dominated the cultural conversation since the predatory behavior patterns of Harvey Weinstein and other prominent figures were exposed. Turner’s screenplay inevitably reflects that discussion, magnified in its most gruesome extreme. But by centering the drama on the most questioning of the women, Van Houten — suggesting her skepticism at every step, and even showing a moment where she is given a clear choice to reject the maniacal doctrine she’s being fed and escape — the movie absolves no one of responsibility.
As indicated by how often the Manson women have been referred to as “girls,” it’s worth considering the way the narrative around the crimes often reduces them to hippy-dippy sexual handmaidens in thrall to the coercive power of an unhinged charismatic leader. Harron and Turner set out to go beyond that, even if the movie remains too thin on back-stories to shed much light on their susceptibility to the mind control of Charles Manson.
Lurching somewhat awkwardly back and forth between the period leading up to the killings and the prison sessions three years later, the movie initially paints the convicted women as serene earth mothers, exchanging sweet goodnights from their neighboring cells like incarcerated Waltons. The recap picks up from the arrival of wide-eyed Leslie at the Spahn Ranch in Los Angeles County. A place used for Western-themed movie and TV shoots, it’s now presided over by Manson, a kind of lawless, guitar-strumming sheriff played with rangy physicality, ravenous sexual appetites and a smile both seductive and cruel by a mop-haired, bushy-bearded Matt Smith.
Turner’s script makes amply clear the double-standard at work in this community of beatific female acolytes and a handful of men, including the brooding, nervous Tex Watson (Chace Crawford). All are urged to shed their inhibitions, explore each other’s bodies and embrace their freedom, ditching watches, clocks and calendars to live in the now. Nobody belongs to anyone, Patricia explains to Leslie, “Except Charlie. We all belong to Charlie.”
But Leslie, rechristened Lulu by Charlie, soon learns that nobody questions him or mocks him either, even if he routinely belittles the female followers to keep them in line. Women eat only after men have been served at the table, and one amusing scene in which Charlie’s arrogance raises the feminist hackles of a new arrival shows his zero-tolerance attitude to such feisty independence.
One of Charlie’s loyalest foot soldiers is Patricia, who goes by the family name Katie. She talks rapturously about the sometimes painful process of reaching awareness by surrendering their egos. But the massive contradiction of Charlie’s outsize ego goes unaddressed. This is illustrated in a scene in which, through the association with the Manson group of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown), Charlie auditions for music producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian). When his modest skills as a folk-rock singer-songwriter fail to land him the expected recording contract, he flies into a rage, and Melcher’s snub has a direct connection to the murders.
Harron traces the spiral of Manson’s “Helter Skelter” vision from its roots in his twisted obsession with The Beatles’ White Album through his crazed plan to start an apocalyptic race war that would pave the way for him to emerge as a messianic leader. This climaxes in the Tate murders, in which five people were killed including actress Sharon Tate (a touching Grace Van Dien), then eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her husband Roman Polanski’s baby; and the LaBianca murders the following night. In keeping with the generally measured tone, the worst of the violence occurs off-camera, but the screams, the pleading and the bloodshed are plenty vivid.
The more intriguing part of the drama happens in the prison encounters between the women and Karlene, who wrestles with the responsibility of making these willfully blind dupes face horrors that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. There’s an almost endearing naivety to their talk of the family “BC” (before the crimes), “When everything was about love.” Even when they acknowledge responsibility for the deaths, they maintain that the acts were necessary for the greater good.
The gradual breaking down of their delusional certainty is nicely played, with Wever showing enormous sensitivity as Murray’s emotionally transparent Leslie cracks first and the others follow. While this is not a film advocating for these women’s crimes to be forgiven, it does show how their vulnerabilities were exploited, paradoxically at a time when feminist consciousness was gaining traction. All four of the women in these scenes have affecting moments that to some degree counter the script’s sketchy characterizations.
The modest production is not particularly distinguished in terms of its visual style, but there’s welcome restraint in its refusal to indulge in the usual trippy psychedelic tropes of movies about the counterculture era. That carries over into the production and costume design. The standout craft contribution is Keegan DeWitt’s period-flavored score, along with some excellent song choices. Charlie Says is not going to pull off a preemptive heist of the Tarantino audience, but as a portrait of bogus revolutionary rhetoric used to undermine and control women, it’s thoughtful and provocative.
Production companies: Epic Level Entertainment, Roxwell Films
Cast: Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever, Suki Waterhouse, Chace Crawford, Annabeth Gish, Kayli Carter, Grace Van Dien
Director: Mary Harron
Screenwriter: Guinevere Turner, based on the book The Family by Ed Sanders
Producers: Dana Guerin, Cindi Rice, John Frank Rosenblum, Jeremy Rosen
Executive producers: David Hillary, Ed Sanders, Michael Guerin
Director of photography: Crille Forsberg
Production designer: Dins Danielsen
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: UTA, Fortitude International