‘Charlie Says’ a sympathetic study of Manson family cult victims

Synopsis: Mary Harron, director of American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol, has just released her newest true crime film Charlie Says (2019). Headlining stars such as Matt Smith, this film asks its viewer to recontextualize the myth of the Manson family cult to become more understanding of the women who were trapped in his abuse, especially protagonist Leslie Van Houten played by Hannah Murray. (AEG: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson

Mary Harron’s latest film Charlie Says sheds a new light on the lives of the three women sentenced to death in California in the wake of the Tate-LaBianca murders. The story follows Leslie Van Houten (as Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (as Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (as Marianne Rendón) as they enter the fold of Charles Manson’s cult and devolve from wide-eyed young women looking for escape to brainwashed followers. Written by Guinevere Turner, and inspired by novels by Karlene Faith and Ed Sanders, this film asks its audience to grapple with the difficult nature of psychological abuse and perhaps come to have some empathy for the woman who were roped into Manson’s ideology.

Harron carefully examines the play between sympathy and accountability in a way that few directors would be able to approach. This is due in large part to the incredible script by Guinevere Turner, who herself grew up in a cult. It is through Turner’s insight that the audience is able to develop a complex understanding of protagonist Leslie Van Houten’s situation.

The first night that Leslie spends at the Manson ranch, the group travels up into the mountains to set up a campfire. Here, in a graphic display, Manson has “his” girls forcefully undress one of the women. Watching her humiliation, Manson showers her in compliments, insisting over and over again that she is perfect. He turns her around and shows the group her surgical scars, and begins yelling that her parents’ greed and desire to operate on her are the reasons for her insecurity, therefore not “her fault.” This seriously twisted display of affection—manipulating a vulnerable young woman through a mix of humiliation and affirmation—gives deep insight into the methodology that Manson (and many other cult personalities) use to lure in followers.

Charles Manson himself is played by actor Matt Smith (best known for Doctor Who). Smith’s layered and heavy performance was a highlight of film. He is able to encapsulate not only the ferocity and madness of Charles Manson but also his uncanny charm and desirability. Through Smith’s acting, it becomes clear why so many women were drawn to this man.

Even so, Manson’s moments of affection always contain an edge, and Smith shows us the deep anger festering under the surface of his seemingly gentle facade. When this edge devolves into severe violence and abuse Smith ably captures the shifting nature of this serial abuser. Walking the line between being both commanding as well as deeply defensive and insecure would be difficult for any actor, but Smith combines these facets of Manson’s personality through his sheer talent.

Intertwined with the story of the girls on the Manson family ranch is a second plot that follows Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins in prison. Graduate student Karlene Faith (played by Merritt Wever) is selected to teach the girls about the outside world. Right away, Faith creates a women’s studies curriculum for them and has them read feminist literature in an attempt to have them gain some self-understanding.

These scenes wherein the girls are forced to grapple with the truth and break down the walls that Manson has built within their heads are thought-provoking and upsetting, but ultimately feel less insightful than the scenes of the girls on the ranch. Unfortunately, prison sequences that could have been used to more deeply explore the three women’s relationships to one another read more like filler to divide up the high tension of life on the ranch, instead of developed moments in their own right.

After the film Mary Harron spoke at a Q&A about the thought process behind the creation of Charlie Says. She explained being drawn to film as an art form because she felt she had something important to say, even if she was still figuring out the best way to say it. It’s because of this desire to shed light on the stories that society has ignored that first drew her to Guinevere Turner’s script. Through her insight, Charlie Says delivers a fantastic job of offering an empathetic look into the lives of Charles Manson’s often overlooked victims without becoming exploitative. Mary Harron delivers once again in this shocking film that is sure to be embraced by many women in the audience.

© Anika Guttormson (05/15/19) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: IMDB

Q: Does Charlie Says pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes.

Tags: FF2 Media

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Anika Guttormson is a film student studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.
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