Thursday 18 July 2019

Charlie Says (USA 2018: Dir Mary Harron)

In all the excitement of celebrating the 50th anniversary of man's first walk on the moon, it's easy to forget that another, darker 50th anniversary should also be marked this year: the killings by members of Charles Manson's 'family', initially of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski and Steven Parent, and the following night Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

And while the world awaits the release of Quentin Tarantino's Manson referencing movie Once Upon a Hollywood (and attempts to wipe from memory the pitiful The Haunting of Sharon Tate) here's Mary American Psycho Harron's take on the subject, an adaptation of Ed Sanders' 1969 book 'The Family.'

Eschewing any whiff of exploitation, Charlie Says focuses on three members of the family, Patricia 'Katie' Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), Susan 'Sadie' Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Leslie 'Lulu' Van Houten (Hannah Murray). Incarcerated following guilty verdicts in the Tate/LaBianca murder trials, their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment following the abolition of the death penalty in the state of California in 1972. However the inmates were considered too dangerous to be integrated into the wider prison community (all three remained unrepentant and still psychologically firmly in Manson's grip), and so as we meet them the women remain separated in the facility's Special Security Unit, with the authorities at a loss how to handle the situation.

As a solution they introduce the prisoners to Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) a graduate student who has successfully been hosting creative writing classes in the prison, and who the powers that be hope may encourage some reflection and even repentance on behalf of Krenwinkel, Atkins and Van Houten. "Are we going to study shit like Women's Lib?" they ask, as Faith introduces them to feminist texts, and examinations of the psychology of domestic violence. Through flashbacks we learn about the brainwashing process practised at Manson's Spahn Ranch in California, particularly as it impacts on Van Houten, the last of the three prisoners to be indoctrinated into the family. And as the women begin to trust Faith more, the chinks in their own allegiance to Manson start to appear.

Cleverly, where most other films about the Manson family have concentrated on Charlie himself, in Harron's film the supporting cast of acolytes, freaks and hangers on get equal, if not greater screen time. Charlie Says is balanced in its attempts to understand the process of inculcation rather than condemn it. The film also wisely dwells very briefly on the actual murders: it opens powerfully, with the three women plus Tex Watson, seen in the aftermath of the deaths of the LaBiancas, visibly shocked but with no details glimpsed apart from some spots of blood on their clothes and 'Helter Skelter' briefly glimpsed daubed on a fridge door.

Faith's gentle coaching of the prisoners, using feminist concepts to help them reflect on Manson's bullying and misogynistic tactics - women not being able to carry money, the supposed equality of 'free' sex - and her insistence on addressing them by their birth names, not the ones given by Manson, are made more powerful by her refusal to moralise or judge. In other directors' hands, the see sawing between past and present may have been distracting, but Harron maintains tension while never once being exploitational.

Bacon, Rendón and Murray are all excellent as the determined, passionate but ultimately lost members of 'the Family' whose allegiance to Manson stems from a need to be loved. Murray in particular turns in a supremely nuanced performance as Van Houten; she alone occasionally questions Manson's motives and the incongruities of his teachings, and her briefly glimpsed moments of doubt make her involvement in the final acts all the more heartbreaking because of this knowledge. As Karlene Faith, Merritt Wever is calm and professional, equally determined, and on occasion totally overwhelmed by her task. And behind the beard and the wild eyes, Matt (Doctor Who) Smith as Charles Manson inhabits the role perfectly, never over melodramatic, but with a sense of violent menace barely kept below surface: the transition of Manson from beatific leader to psychotic gang leader following record producer Terry Melcher's refusal to record his songs is both believable and quite terrifying.

Charlie Says is out in the UK on Digital from 22nd July and DVD from 29th July.


  1. Thanks for this excellent introduction to the film David, it really does sound like a refreshing spin on the Manson phenomenon. I shall keep an eye out for this. I'm not a reader of True Crime books but I must have read Helter Skelter five or six times over the years, so strange and compelling is Manson's story. I've heard people making the claim that Manson was some kind of wayward genius routinely outsmarting his interviewers but I've always found him rambling and incoherent. If he had a talent it was for spotting an angle he could exploit...

    1. Thanks Wes. I've never been convinced that Manson is anything but a deranged chancer with advanced NLP skills (and I'm not a fan of creatives fetishising him either). Much like the recent TV prog on Peter Sutcliffe, this was interesting mainly for its foregrounding of the women in a story which has already been told too many times.