Movie Review: “Charlie Says”

There can be no doubt that Charles Manson was a charismatic figure and that there is, quite clearly, a (morbid) fascination that still exists today around the crimes his “family” committed in the late ’60s.  It is easy to sit and ponder, perplexed, just how he was able to convince those involved in said crimes to participate.  There have been plenty of movies on the topic, and there are sure to be plenty more.

The latest film to look at the Manson Family, directed by Mary Harron and written by Guinevere Turner, is “Charlie Says.”  Not simply focused on the central figure, it also attempts to grapple with the hold Manson held over his followers and, quite significantly, the fallout from the events once three of the women are in prison, having been sentenced to death for their crimes.

Matt Smith of “Doctor Who” fame stars here as Manson with Sosie Bacon as Patricia Krenwinkel, Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houten, and Marianne Rendón as Susan Atkins – the three women the story follows most closely.  The tale itself is largely done as flashback, with the women in prison contemplating the period and discussing it with a graduate student working with them, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever).  The film itself is “inspired” by the book written by Faith and Ed Sanders.

Although Harron’s film makes every moment fascinating in and of itself, it never quite plumbs the full depth of the “why” of the events.  Instead, it feels more like a list of what took place – this occurred, then this occurred, then that occurred.  We see Manson’s manipulations, and Smith is every bit as charismatic as he needs to be for the film to succeed, but too often the audience is at a distance from the women as “Charlie Says” offers the events. We see Leslie fall under Manson’s sway, but we are never as closely connected as we might be.

Where it does work, and works wonderfully, is during the moments in the prison.  It is there, when Karlene is talking to the women, and we observe them through her eyes, that the most insight is offered.  It is heartbreaking to watch the women, even years after the murders, cling to their beliefs that Manson was correct in his worldview and that a larger war is coming.

Harron conveys the fear of such a thing and the extreme poles by which these women lived – everything is beautifully and lovely and about peace and harmony and, at the same time, these murders are right because they’re advancing a larger social agenda. Manson’s ability to connect these elements into a worldview cohesive enough that he could get people to accept it is something to both marvel at and fear.

It is an undeniably difficult task for a film explain how Leslie, Susan, and Patricia—along with many others—were held under Manson’s sway.  The questions become larger ones about the power of belief, the desire for some sense of purpose, wanting to be loved, and so much more.  This work gets close, but never quite crosses a necessary threshold.

Some of the shortfall is due to the constant switching back and forth between prison and the Manson camp. Just as the audience is getting invested in the events of one, we stop short and switch to the other.  It does speak well of the film, however, that the prison portion, the examination after the fact, is more compelling than the in the moment actions.  The movie is really getting at something even if it never quite makes it all the way to the center.

“Charlie Says” is a powerful and, at times, scary look about mental manipulation and its after effects.  There are, inevitably, comparisons to be made with other films about Charles Manson, but that is a larger, darker, topic than anything we could cover here.  Suffice to say this is an intriguing work, but never quite as engrossing as the subject.

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photo credit:  IFC Films

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