Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron’s bio crime drama, Charlie Says, offers a provocative new perspective on a notorious case as it examines the Manson Family women at the center of the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders in the summer of 1969.
Like many of Harron’s films, it’s definitely outside the mainstream and involves controversial characters. Directed from an awkwardly structured script by Guinevere Turner, the story focuses on the emotional state of the female characters more than on the heinous nature of their crimes. Harron encourages us to view them as vulnerable, often endearing victims whose humanity was debased by Charlie Manson. However, the horrific physical and psychological brutality they meted out to their victims doesn’t warrant this sympathetic treatment.
Harron elicits some solid performances from her cast. Merritt Wever, in particular, delivers an impressive turn as the intelligent, compassionate, yet conflicted feminist criminologist, Karlene Faith, who struggles to reconcile the trio of convicted women she meets in prison with the crimes they committed. Faith co-founded the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project; remained in contact with Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel over the years; and wrote about it in detail in one of the books that inspired the movie. Hannah Murray’s transformation into the cold blooded killer Van Houten, who is central to the story, is both nuanced and intriguing to watch.
Portraying Manson, the dangerously manipulative charmer at the heart of one of the most infamous crimes in L.A. history, would be a challenge for any actor. Unfortunately, Smith seems miscast. He rarely comes across as genuinely scary, nor does he come close to exposing the depths of the cult leader’s chilling depravity despite his best efforts.
The film is worth seeing as part of Harron’s overall body of work, but she misses the opportunity to dig more deeply and present what is needed — a clearer, more focused point of view. Instead, she mines the psychology of a cult on the most superficial level, undercutting the cultural power and influence of its infamous leader, his terrifying agenda, and his uncanny ability to transform followers who lack the ability to think for themselves into stone cold killers.