When dramatizing a notorious true crime with real-life victims, the question of how much sympathy to give the devil is always a critical one. That concern is at the heart of Mary Harron’s Charlie Says (in select theaters today and on VOD next Friday), which deals with what are commonly referred to as the Manson murders—even though Charles Manson himself didn’t actually carry them out. Yet many more people know his name than those of the three young women and one man who actually executed Sharon Tate, her friends and the LaBiancas (even Manson’s Wikipedia page only specifically identifies Tex Watson), and Harron’s film aims to give faces to those who killed on Manson’s behalf and track what led them to those deadly nights.
Charlie Says is framed by the efforts of criminologist/teacher Karlene Faith (The Walking Dead’s Merritt Wever, whose sensitive performance grounds these sequences) to psychologically rehabilitate Leslie Van Houten, a.k.a. “Lulu” (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel/“Katie” (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins/“Sadie” (Marianne Rendon), who have been sequestered in a separate unit of the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison. Three years after their conviction, incarceration has done nothing to rehabilitate the trio, as their isolation has only led their delusions to feed on each other. They’re still under Manson’s sway even after being long separated from him, and lengthy flashbacks focused on Leslie, the most blissed-out of the jailed women, reveal how that hold was maintained.
What Charlie says, in the screenplay by Harron’s American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page collaborator Guinevere Turner, is a combination of hippie philosophizing and language intended to subjugate the female members of his “Family.” “What is it you don’t like about your body?” he asks one of them, demeaning her under the guise of raising her consciousness. Manson is played by Matt Smith, in a 180-degree turn from Doctor Who, as a man with enough dangerous charisma to lure in young people uncertain about what they want to do with their lives—or fleeing the strictures of lives being mapped out by their parents, which the film suggests is Leslie’s case. Game of Thrones’ Murray (for those keeping track, here’s another American story in which the principal roles are portrayed—very well—by Brits) does a fine job of allowing us to understand how Leslie was lured into obeisance to Manson, even as she carries an undercurrent of doubt; one of the strongest scenes has a visiting biker, who has fallen for her, offering the hesitant Leslie a chance to escape the compound.
Charlie Says doesn’t provide much in the way of backstory for Leslie or the others who joined her on the murder rampages, so there’s the sense that their full history isn’t being told. Nonetheless, Harron and Turner succeed in finding a fresh and absorbing point of view on a familiar and tragic true story—up to and including the murders, which retain their horror without descending into exploitation. And while they understand what happened to Leslie, Patricia and Susan, the filmmakers stop short of absolving them of responsibility; the fact that they themselves were victims of a sort, the movie says, doesn’t excuse their actions. When Manson rehearses his minions for their violent attacks on the “pigs” of society, and Leslie screams as she stabs at the air with her knife, she seems to be letting out all her inner frustrations—but it’s not a cathartic moment, rather a shuddery sign of how Manson is manipulating his acolytes’ emotions.
The ’60s atmosphere is conveyed in a redolent yet understated manner, particularly by Keegan DeWitt’s evocative score and a lineup of the era’s songs that eschews the more obvious choices. Crille Forsberg’s cinematography often bathes the Family’s environment in reds and oranges, eliciting a sense of magic-hour warmth at some points and a descent into hell at others. This color scheme serves as an effective contrast to the stark visualization of the prison scenes—which complements the harsh truths Karlene guides her “students” to confront.