DIRECTOR: MARY HARRON | SCREENPLAY: GUINEVERE TURNER | STARRING: HANNAH MURRAY, SUKI WATERHOUSE, ANNABETH GISH, MATT SMITH | RELEASE DATE: JULY 29TH
The director of American Psycho tackles one of the country’s most infamous in Charlie Says, documenting the lives of three women in Charles Manson’s hippy commune. The story hooks up with ‘Charlie’ in the months and days prior to his followers’ crimes, as a manipulative, charismatic aspiring musician building a small cult of damaged followers craving his attention. And, oh, the things they will do to secure Charlie’s favour.
For all the screentime Matt Smith’s Charles Manson gets, this film truly belongs to Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins – the three disturbed young women caught up in Charlie’s bullshit. Whether they deserve the spotlight, however, is a different matter entirely. Guinevere Turner’s script (inspired by caseworker Karlene Faith’s memoirs) explores the why rather than the what, following newest recruit Van Houten (Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray) as she falls under Charlie’s thrall. By necessity, we’re asked to sympathise with the devils; confused individuals, exploited and abused by a charismatic, self-serving monster.
This angle is a rare direction of approach for a biopic on this particular psychopath, with its director well-suited to the subject matter. Like her Patrick Bateman, Harron’s Charles Manson is depicted as a seductive idiot; an imbecile with a thesaurus and a knack for honing in on the vulnerable. Smith is surprisingly restrained as Manson, resisting the urge to go larger-than-life or lean into the beast’s mannerisms. And yet still, Charlie Says is disappointingly superficial, lacking a handle on its characters’ inner workings. Van Houten, particularly, is difficult to read, and the film feels as though it is grasping at straws every time it asks for us to sympathise with her, or believe in a sense of inner conflict that nobody really knows was there or not.
Far more successful is the film’s other timeline, set after the Manson murders, with the three women dealing with the fallout of their crimes in a prison block together. This does away with the camp theatricality of life in the Manson compound (done better in Mandy anyway) and hones in on the aftermath, where the real insight is to be garnered. Charlie Says is more thoughtful and even-handed than most Manson family biopics out there (ranging from the disrespectful Haunting of Sharon Tate to the downright repulsive Wolves at the Door), bringing a balance that many will claim its subjects simply do not deserve. It’s a similar route as taken by the recent Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, made more effective by a trio of commanding performances and well-documented case histories. It’s commendable that we’re getting another perspective on the matter, but there’s no hiding from the fact that forty years later, the world is still hanging on every word that Charlie says.