“Maybe these women are victims too.”
That’s the chin-scratcher at the forefront of Charlie Says, director Mary Harron and her American Psycho collaborator Guinevere Turner’s look into the Manson family – or rather, the women inside the Manson family. Uttered by Karlene Faith (played compassionately and marvelously by Merritt Wever), a grad student who works to revamp the psyches of three incarcerated girls who did their part in the notorious and savage Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the film uses her outsider perspective to form a tragic and empathetic narrative around the three and their ultimately abusive relationship with ringleader Charles Manson (Matt Smith).
The title refers to the trio’s go-to answer whenever Karlene gently questions their seemingly indestructible loyalty. As Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) spout out some of the mis-truths implanted and endorsed by Manson, such as a race war sparked by the Beatles’ White Album, or the potential gift of growing wings, their adherent blindness becomes the film’s best witness in its case to redirect a decades-long demonization. Even if the case is controversial – and one I’m not sure I agree with – for the most part, Harron makes it well.
Lined up in neighboring cells three years after the murders and only allowed occasional moments together, the girls’ lessons with Karlene are the backdrop to the film’s peculiar and awkward structure. Told mostly in flashback form, the teachings are blended with the memories of their time with Charlie BC (before the crimes), peering in mostly on standout exhibits of the hook he’s latched deeply into them.
A commendable characteristic of the film is its acknowledgment of the several other women in Manson’s family, who, pent up in a ranch on the mountains outside Los Angeles, were subjected to a degrading and doped-up environment that paradoxically forced “free love” upon them. One particularly disturbing scene at a dinner table sees a woman slapped repeatedly by Charlie, biting as he drags her away, having his tongue drained down her throat, and finally, as if turned on by a switch, begging him not to stop.
“Getting hit by the man you love is no different than making love to him,” she later tells Leslie. “Charlie just gives me what I need.”
While this is just one of the several examples of blind affection the film notably displays, what lacks is its justification of the whys in this situation, of which there are several. The screenplay offers prophesizing phrases like “kill your ego” as answers, and though they certainly play a part in this mass conditioning, the components of Charlie that make this degree of manipulation possible – a central piece of the Manson story – are hardly addressed.
What occurs within Matt Smith’s long-haired, long-bearded portrayal is a portrait of a pathetic man – an annoyingly racist, sexist pest. For much of the first act of the movie, he can be seen donning an acoustic guitar across his shoulder, prostituting his family members to musicians (including Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, played by James Trevena-Brown) and producers, and smoking joints while mumbling empty revolutionary rhetoric in a ring of bad lighting, and (most likely) smelly orgies. That’s all well and good, until you remember that this is a real story about a real man who influenced real people to commit several random murders. At that point, the quench for answers becomes unreachable, and the film becomes frustrating.
However, the American Psycho director’s ability to portray excessively pointless violence as hand-in-hand with the social conscience is still strong. If anything, Charlie Says is absorbing more than it’s effective, and it seems I’ll be looking towards Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for some of those answers.
For more, be sure to check out my interview with director Mary Harron.
Charlie Says may not reach deep enough into the horrors that birthed the Manson Family, but as an exhibit of pathetically prophetic garble used to dehumanize and control women, it’s attentive and provocative.