Director Mary Harron, who previously found the humanity in would-be assassin Valeria Solanas with I Shot Andy Warhol and Bret Easton Ellis’ twisted master of the universe in American Psycho tries to the same with Charles Manson acolytes and murderers Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Susan Atkins with her latest, Charlie Says. It is a mixed bag, but intriguing enough to make it a worthy addition to Harron’s oeuvre despite some glaring weaknesses.
Where Charlie Says soars is in recounting a little-known chapter of the three women’s lives. It is several years after the killings of actress Sharon Tate and her friends and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, their death sentences have been commuted, and housed in adjacent cells in solitary confinement, they are still in thrall to Manson and echo chambers for one another. Into this situation comes Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver), a teacher allowed to mentor the women who becomes determined to make them face and take responsibility for their roles in the killings. Weaver is terrific as a warm, matter-of-fact personality who genuinely likes Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon) but is disturbed by their fealty to their puppet master and their nonchalance toward their vicious crimes. The scenes between the four actors are riveting as Faith, gently but directly, challenges what these women have received as gospel truth and begins to break Manson’s hold.
Less successful are the flashback scenes, mostly told from Van Houten’s-at 19, the youngest and most naïve of the trio—perspective of life at Spahn Ranch with Manson leading up to and including the killings. (Interesting that so much of the movie deals with Faith’s attempts to make the women take responsibility for their actions, while the film itself emphasizes the mitigating circumstances of Van Houten’s youth and inexperience.) Matt Smith, so riveting as Doctor Who, misses badly with his cartoonish portrayal of Manson, lacking the charisma to convince that he could hold such sway over people that they would takes the lives of complete strangers on his command.
The biggest problem with the portion of Charlie Says that deals directly with Family life and the Manson murders is that it doesn’t really illuminate anything. Yes, we see that these three women endure humiliation and worse at Manson’s authoritarian hand and keeping coming back for more until they are so enmeshed with him that what’s a little bloodshed between friends? But that could have been conveyed more economically instead of taking up at least half, if not, more of the movie’s runtime. There is no room left from what the story truly lacks: What’s missing is any sense of who these women really are and who they were before they ever encountered Charles Manson. Without that it’s impossible to assess their culpability in their crimes and whether they deserve Karlene Faith’s (and the audience’s) sympathy. They remain ciphers.
Perhaps the best way to look at Charlie Says is as the story of Karlene Faith rather than of the three Manson women. It is her determination to change their lives and her deep well of empathy that truly animates the drama. Harron is always looking for humanity in unlikely places. She finds it in this story, just not with the threesome at the dark heart of a vicious crime.