Attempted peeks behind the curtain of the Manson Family and what led to the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends is a rocky road. It’s a narrative that can be exploitative, cheap, disrespectful, and either glorifies Charles Manson or worse, paints Manson’s cult as victims that were manipulated in to becoming murderous monsters. “Charlie Says” dabbles in the latter material where Mary Harron’s film boils down to a bunch of women being conned by a failed musician who would have sold them out at the snap of a finger.
Three years after participating in the murder of Sharon Tate, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) are on death row. The women continue to follow the teachings of Charles Manson (Matt Smith), when Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver), a graduate student with the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project, arrives to connect with the three prisoners, hoping to provide them with enlightenment about themselves through discussion and literature, the girls frequently return to their memories of life with Charlie, with Leslie the latest arrival at the Spahn Ranch. As Karlene returns repeatedly to teach the trio, Leslie begins to doubt Manson’s teaching, inciting doubt among her fellow inmates.
What writer Guinevere Turner delves in to with so much weight is how Charles Manson was a con man who settled for a cult when he couldn’t take off as a musician. This is a man who puts up a great show as a performer, but when it came down to it, was nothing but smoke and mirrors. At times he was barely that. Manson is a man who manages to win over women and men with hard family lives, while barely making a dent in to anyone with enough guts to roll their eyes at him. One scene depicts Charles Manson getting out of a tub in the buff to greet a new female visitor. Although Manson expects her to be mystified by him, she’s not nearly as impressed as he thought she’d be and he shuns her like a petulant child. He then proceeds to bathe like Jesus Christ in the flesh while crediting passages in the bible to himself.
Matt Smith’s performance as Manson isn’t stellar, but he does a great job of depicting merely a man who wanted to be a God. Although in the film he praises and idolizes the Beatles, he wants to be them, and that amounts to frustration, violence, and inevitably murder. “Charlie Says” is an interesting crime thriller with Merritt Wever doing a bang up job as Karlene Faith, a woman who was stunned at how Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins were taken by Manson. She engages in an uphill battle trying to invoke some sense of clarity in them and how Manson merely exploited them for his own hedonism and ignorance, and it inevitably takes a toll on her emotionally. We don’t get to know a lot about Faith, which is a plus and a caveat.
I would have loved to see more about Faith and her home life and how she viewed the man and woman dynamic, but Harron keeps the film squarely on Manson’s women. The problem lies in the fact that Harron depicts the women as victims of Charlie who willingly gave themselves to him for reasons only they can comprehend. By the finale not even Faith can figure out what hold Charlie has on them, and yet we’re still supposed to empathize with them in a sense. There’s not a ton of explanation for what the goal with “Charlie Says” here. Are we supposed to sympathize with these women? Is writer Turner sensationalizing them like much of the media has? In either case, “Charlie Says” plays the whole narrative safe, but it’s worth a watch if only for the strong performances.
The Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory features a six minute Making Of with a brief look at the production, cast and crew interviews on set, looking at certain story points, character motivations, and more. Finally, there’s the original theatrical trailer.