Two new feature films mark the 50th anniversary of the still- disturbing, endlessly fascinating Tate/LaBianca murders that shook the tony enclaves of Los Angeles to the core in August, 1969. Quentin Tarantino’s star studded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will get more attention. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, with its focus on the women in Charles Manson’s “family” who committed the heinous murders, may be the more interesting.
Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner are suited to the material having collaborated on American Psycho which managed to turn a smarmy novel into a brutal but substantial film. Harron also made one of the best movies centered on an outcast, vilified woman, Valerie Solanas, with I Shot Andy Warhol.. Turner just wrote a revealing personal essay for the New Yorker about her own experience growing up in a cult.
The creators bring this background to Charlie Says in an effort to thoughtfully tackle the most challenging question: how to say something new about such angering and stomach-churning crimes and how to make an audience empathize with women who fell under the spell of a sociopath. It does not succeed entirely but it does engage — and it humanizes the main female characters without absolving them of responsibility.
Charlie Says — the title refers to the frequent response by “Manson girls” Patricia Kenwinkle (Sosie Bacon); Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray); and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) even after they are behind bars. It is Karlene Faith (an excellent Merritt Wever), a kind and forthright feminist social worker and instructor at the California Institution for Women (the script is based partly on her book), who begins to gently question the women’s beliefs. “What do you think?” she asks with sincerity when they quote “Charlie.” Thus begins the slow breaking down of their indoctrination.
The film cuts between the prison sessions between Faith and the three women and the Manson clan pre-murders, when it was just a ragtag hippie commune nestled in the LA canyons. Young women — I haven’t seen so many peasant blouses and long, stringy hair outside a 1970s high school yearbook — wander in and stay, as much for each other as for Manson (well-played by Matt Smith) who presides over them as loony guru, drug dealer, counterculture daddy figure and misogynistic abuser. Like most cults, the women do all the work, have sex with Manson or his visiting chums whenever “Charlie says” and listen, rapt, to his rantings about the coming race war he terms “Helter Skelter.” At least one member of his harem, Leslie, whom Manson christens “Lulu,” displays some doubt. The looks that cross her face when she sees Manson insult a young woman who has the temerity to call him rude, or after Leslie points out a contradiction in Manson’s thinking that earns his wrath for her “little female brain,” betray her conflicts. But still she stays.
Why so many young women were drawn into this creep’s web is a puzzle that one movie can’t solve. We don’t get much backstory on the girls, save for Leslie telling her crying mother over the telephone to stop loving her. The film does capture the isolation and indoctrination of the women once they are under Manson’s sadistic control and the need for one another’s approval as well as the competition, much like the “sister wives” of a Mormon cult. It’s 1969, but it’s not until they’re in prison and Karlene shares with them copies of the books Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful that they are exposed to the nascent women’s movement. Faith, who died in 2017, comes across as the rare compassionate and insightful figure in helping the women take responsibility for their crimes and slowly shed their attachment to Manson. If one wonders why we need another movie about Manson or his followers, this character alone helps to justify it.