Evocative cinema can sometimes be difficult to experience. Such is the case with “Charlie Says,” a new film about Charles Manson, his followers and the crimes they committed 50 years ago.
“Charlie Says,” an IFC Films release, hit select theaters May 10. The rollout expanded May 17 to include cable and digital view-on-demand.
There are scenes in director Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says” that are likely to make viewers uncomfortable, enraged and sickened. Even though the film examines familiar subject matter, the level of savagery and inhumanity ascribed to the Manson Family murders has made it stand out as a particularly loathsome atrocity of 20th century American history. The brutal slayings helped bring an end to the peace and love movement of the 1960s. Harron’s film is unabashedly graphic both in its depiction of the grisly killings and its analysis of how Manson managed to indoctrinate and reprogram the members of his desert commune cult.
“Charlie Says” is the kind of film that is simultaneously repulsive and mesmerizing. Despite the disturbing subject matter, it is difficult to turn away. More than the modern fascination with true crime and our collective morbid curiosity, what drives viewers to biographical dramas about history’s most notorious killers is the need to understand how society can beget individuals capable of such acts.
There’s no shortage of films seeking to shed light on the minds of monsters.
It’s only been a few weeks since Netflix dropped “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a film about serial killer Ted Bundy. Despite some outstanding performances, the Bundy film lacked a clear message, avoided conjecture and provided no revelations. Joe Berlinger, the film’s director, failed to speculate as to what made Bundy who he was.
In contrast, the director of “Charlie Says” offers deep insight into the minds of those who carried out the Manson Family crimes.
Harron is best known for directing a string of independent films such as “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), “American Psycho” (2000) and “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2005). The screenplay for “Charlie Says,” by Guinevere Turner, pulls source material from two books: “The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion” by Ed Sanders and “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten” by Karlene Faith.
“It is comforting to see the Manson girls as monsters, as ‘other’, as outliers to normal human experience,” writes Harron in her director’s statement. “In fact, the most disturbing thing about them is their ordinariness.”
“Charlie Says” focuses on three of Manson’s female followers. Years after the killings, the women remained under the spell of the cult leader while serving time in prison. Karlene Faith, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-founder of the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project, is asked to work with Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins. The film is as much about Faith, a feminist criminologist, as it is about Manson.
Harron uses Faith’s efforts to rehabilitate the women to view the Manson Family murders from a unique perspective. The graduate student gradually draws out the women’s experiences in the cult while attempting to down the psychological barriers erected by Manson.
Just as the real-life Karlene Faith was convinced the prisoners aren’t the inhuman monsters the world believes them to be, Harron’s film shows how they were among Manson’s first victims themselves. Although the filmmaker finds room for empathy, the film certainly doesn’t absolve them of their guilt.
The cast manages to make this well-tread material compelling and relevant. Hannah Murray plays Leslie Van Houten, Sosie Bacon plays Patricia Krenwinkel and Marianne Rendón portrays Susan Atkins.
The choice of Matt Smith to portray Charles Manson proves to be a perceptive one. The public has long pictured Manson as a monster. Smith — best known for his role as the 11th incarnation of The Doctor in the BBC series “Doctor Who” — doesn’t seem to fit the profile. In fact, he captures both sides of the character, depicting Manson’s charismatic magnetism as well as the madness and resentment just beneath the surface.
Merritt Wever gives an exceptional and emotionally-charged performance as Karlene Faith. Though her screen time is limited, Faith can be viewed as the film’s central character. She knows that her attempts to remind Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins of who they were before meeting Manson will both liberate them and bring into sharp focus the horror of their deeds. It will force them to reflect on the choices they made.
“Charlie Says” is the kind of film that’s hard to peg. It’s attention-grabbing and thought-provoking, but it’s equally unsettling and disheartening. Viewers who can stomach revisiting one of the darkest and most malevolent acts of barbarity in recent history won’t walk away empty handed. There is a message of hope and redemption as conveyed by the perseverance of Karlene Faith.
There is also a warning – because it’s naïve to think that men like Manson aren’t out there, waiting to use charisma and cunning to manipulate followers into making bad choices.