Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
We appear to be having something of a ‘serial killer moment’ in popular culture in the last few years, with Netflix leading the way – between the smash-hit true crime series Making a Murderer, both the documentary and narrative films about Ted Bundy and the TV show Mindhunter. Manson’s most famous victim, Sharon Tate, features in three upcoming films, with 2019 being the 50th anniversary of her murder. The most high-profile of these is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (starring Margot Robbie as Tate), as well as Hilary Duff in The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Kate Bosworth in Tate. One might ask if we really need another film about Charles Manson, but in Charlie Says, director Mary Harron has chosen not to focus on Manson or Tate, but instead on three of the women who were part of the Manson ‘Family’, who committed the murders on his behalf. It is actually a misconception that Manson was a serial killer. Instead, he was a cult leader who ordered his devotees to go on a killing spree across two consecutive nights, in the hope it would ignite a race war. Manson did not get his hands dirty by personally killing anyone himself, but was convicted of ‘murder by proxy’ and conspiracy to murder.
Director Mary Harron is best known for directing American Psycho and she also has previous experience working with true crime – in I Shot Andy Warhol. Writer Guinevere Turner also worked on American Psycho and Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page. For Charlie Says, she mined her own childhood in a commune (which could also be described as a cult) called the Lyman Family. In a recent interview with The LA Times, Turner says that she was really trying to answer the question of “how did he get them to join the cult and get them to do these horrible things?” The film does not provide simple or pat explanations to this question.
Merritt Wever plays Karlene, a teacher who goes into prisons to teach High School and College courses to inmates. There she meets Susan (Marianne Rendon), Pat (Sosie Bacon) and Leslie (Hannah Murray) – three members of the Manson Family who are on death row (it has been three years since the crimes were committed). However, in February 1972, the California Supreme Court found that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the California state constitution and 107 condemned inmates were re-sentenced to life in prison and removed from California’s death row. Due to their notoriety, it is decided that the Manson murderers cannot be put in with the general prison population, so they are isolated in their death row cells for 23 hours per day. Karlene sets up a little classroom for the three women, so they can at least be out of their cells and have some communication with other people. Karlene soon comes to realize that, to varying degrees, the three women are still very much brainwashed by Manson and they still believe they have a kind of ‘salvation’ waiting for them.
Harron inter-cuts between the prison scenes and flashbacks to the Manson compound skillfully. Manson (in a surprisingly good performance, with excellent accent work, from Matt Smith) is presented as charming and charismatic, yes, but his narcissism, racism and misogyny is not shied away from. What is missing is more back-story on the women’s lives before they met Manson. It is not clear what these young people (there were men as well) were escaping, to make blindly adhering to Manson and his beliefs seem so appealing. The only family referred to is Leslie’s, who is seen on the phone telling her mother to stop loving her and stop trying to find her. Yes, the appeal of being hippies and ‘dropping out’ of regular society is understandable, but we don’t get enough on what leads the Family members to put up with Manson’s abuse (he is violent towards one of the women in one scene, as well as being verbally, mentally and emotionally abusive throughout) and to be coerced into the murders. Manson makes them believe they have been brainwashed by their parents and society, when of course, it is him doing the brainwashing. He tightly controls the women of the commune especially – they are only allowed to read the Bible, the women are not allowed to handle money and the men are served food at the table before them.
As well as the three main characters, other members of the family are played by Suki Waterhouse (who plays Mary, a woman who gives birth to Manson’s child) and Kayli Carter (who was phenomenal in Private Life). Hannah Murray is best known for Skins and Game of Thrones, but was also particularly impressive in 2015’s Bridgend (a film about teen suicide in Wales). She gives a vanity-free performance here as the naive Leslie and it is mainly through her eyes that we view Manson and the rest of the Family. Sosie Bacon is also exceptional as the most devout Manson disciple, Pat, who even in prison, holds out the longest in her commitment to him and his ideas. Merritt Wever (a prolific actor mainly on TV) gives a complex and layered performance as the well-meaning Karlene. She attempts to educate the women on both ‘women’s lib’ and the civil rights movement, to try and undo some of the damage Manson has done to them. She has four children and is separated from her husband who is ‘not a good man,’ showing that she has made mistakes and how easy it is for women to become subdued and suppressed by the men in their lives. A shrewd decision by Harron is to mainly feature Tate in video footage of her giving an interview, which Susan watches in prison, thereby giving her a voice in her own words. The murder sequences are not unnecessarily graphic or prolonged, while still conveying their horrific nature and it feels less exploitative than some depictions of Tate, in particular, who has been almost fetishized in popular culture.
Whilst many people are understandably getting true crime fatigue, Charlie Says offers a different perspective on what has become a well-worn topic. By focusing on the women, it is an examination of gaslighting in its extreme and how it can have long lasting effects on the psychology of those who have suffered mental and emotional abuse. Further backstory on the central three women’s childhood and family life would have added even more insight, but only so much can be done during a film’s run-time. Mary Harron is a fascinating filmmaker and her next movie should be greatly anticipated. Let’s hope it is not as long a wait this time.
Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.