Charlie Says is a truth-based narrative that explores the lives and mindsets of the vulnerable young women who were key members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ and were brainwashed into complete acceptance of his warped philosophy–and into following his orders in daily life and in the unimaginably brutal 1969 slayings of actress Sharon Tate and friends who had gathered at her Los Angeles home.
Directed by Mary Harron and scripted by Guinevere Turner with Karlene Faith (based on Faith’s interactions with the women and her writings about them), with Ed Sander’s book The Family as an additional resource, the narrative focuses in particular on Leslie van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia Kenwinkle (Sosie Bacon) who were tried and convicted for the murders.
Much of the film’s action is set in prison, where the three convicted women are serving life sentences. They are segregated from the other inmates, but they routinely meet together for a prison-sanctioned theraputic study group under the tutelage and guidance of Karlene Faith (played by Merritt Wever), who gently challenges the women about their ongoing belief in Manson and unquestioning acceptance of his ideas , and delves into their unwavering loyalty to him.
In flashbacks leading up to the murders and imprisonment, Harron effectively dramatizes Charles Manson’s (Matt Smith) callous recruitment of the young women and establishes their communal ‘family’ lifestyle of obedience — doing whatever demonic Charlie says to do and believing without question whatever political and social theories he espouses. The family lifestyle scenes are harrowing in that they are presented as though the aberrant behavior were entirely normal. They reveal how easy it was for Manson the sociopath to exercise complete control over his devoted acolytes who were, in the end, also his victims.
Charlie Says is a fascinating film, a psychological thriller that is utterly compelling even though you know the story’s outcome and the fate of the three women at its center.
Charlie Says had it’s US premiere on May 1, 2019 at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. It opens in theaters on May 10 and becomes available on the Internet on May 17.