Every now and again, whether through deliberate planning or sheer serendipity, we end up with Hollywood bringing us movies about – or at least featuring – the same subject. Remember the Summer of Volcano Movies? Or the Summer of Robin Hood Moves? How about the Summer of Asteroid Movies? Well, 2019 is bringing us the Summer of Charles Manson Movies.
By far, the most high profile of these will be Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, with Charles Manson played by Damon Herriman, and victim Sharon Tate portrayed by Margot Robbie. Tarantino’s movie could prove to be somewhat controversial, in view of the angle that he’s reported to have taken in approaching the events of the time. It seems the exploits of the Manson Family are fertile ground, with numerous drama and documentary features having been made in the last five decades, since they carried out a series of murders in July and August 1969.
Movies about historical crimes – including serial or mass murders – have an inherent risk of glorifying the perpetrators; most recently, this was an accusation levelled at Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, about Ted Bundy, which was based upon the memoirs of his former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, with some criticism being directed at the attention focused on actually recreating the events. ending up diluting the use of Kendall’s perspective being used to tell the story, and the focus upon Bundy coming at the expense of his victims.
The creative team behind Charlie Says – director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner – have given us a piece based upon the book The Family by Ed Sanders, which ostensibly intends to give us a look at three of the Manson Family – Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) – with our perspective coming from Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a tutor who visits prisons in order to provide opportunities to inmates for education and learning.
The more time she spends with the trio, the more she tries to break through the programming which they received from Manson, and help with their pre-Family identities fully reasserting themselves; however, she also realises that by doing so, it will trigger the inner realisation for them of the various horrors that they’ve committed, and as a result begin their true punishment, as they begin to atone for what they’ve done. Faith is used as the audience’s point of entry, as she probes the three women and tries to understand them, as well as trying to get each of them to understand themselves.
Harron and Turner are longtime creative collaborators, having previously worked together on The Notorious Bettie Page and American Psycho; you would think that, having brought us the latter, the duo would be able to bring us a compelling look at the subject matter, with Manson having been responsible for bringing about a series of heinous killings, using those around him as his weapons. Sadly, it seems that Harron and Turner are best at working with fictional, stylised forms of psychopathy, as this effort falls some way short.
In an unexpected piece of casting, Manson is played by Matt Smith, who wouldn’t be the first person you’d necessarily think of for portraying the notorious cult leader. However, Smith does a creditable job of bringing him to life, without making him come over as sympathetic or relatable – we need that emotional distance in order to avoid any possibility of seeing him in a different light, particularly as the story requires him to be a monster. While his accent wavers now and again, and you see the very occasional glimpse of Smith breaking through his Manson, he should get full credit for doing something which is far removed from his work on Doctor Who and The Crown.
The structure is rather odd, as although it uses Faith’s involvement with the trio in prison as the framing device, it spends so long with Manson and his followers that we don’t get any real connection to her. It feels as though, instead of it being a story told with flashbacks, it’s closer to being a piece set in 1969 during the reign of the Manson Family, with flashforwards to the three women being in prison, so minimal is the overall amount of time we see them incarcerated. As a result, the movie does feel rather unbalanced, as it really needs to spend more time focusing upon what’s happening while they’re in jail.
The closest we get to learning just what would make someone join the Manson Family comes in the form of Leslie (or ‘LuLu’, as she later becomes known), as she signs up early on in the tale, whereas everyone else that we meet is already well indoctrinated, and there’s no examination of what made them follow Manson. It feels a wasted opportunity, as the prison scenes revolve around Leslie, Susan and Patricia, yet we don’t actually get to know them, and for the most part they feel as distant and enigmatic at the end as they do at the start, even though some of the barriers do start to come down.
It’s disappointing that the film scratches the surface at best in terms of its subject matter. You wouldn’t necessarily expect it to focus on Manson, as that’s been done in other media, and we’re supposed to be seeing him through the eyes of some of his followers and acolytes; however, no real insight is given either into them as individuals, nor the inner workings of a cult. It’s such a wasted opportunity, and leaves the finished product feeling rather rudderless and without aim or direction in narrative terms, as it doesn’t seem to really know what it’s saying, or who it’s about.
Charlie Says could actually have said a whole lot more than it does. Definitely one for cult audiences only.