The cult of Charles Manson and the horrifying murders committed in his name remain a source of interest almost 50 years later (this August marks the anniversary of the murders). Cults are also really hot right now, with even The CW’s Riverdale getting a piece of the pie — though, obviously, being a part of Chad Michael Murray’s sex cult isn’t quite as appealing as Chris Hemsworth’s (in last year’s otherwise dull Bad Times at the El Royale). Charlie Says, the new film from Mary Harron, boasts Matt Smith as its leader, so sex appeal is in short supply here.
Harron kicks things off with a Joan Didion quote, so it’s evident from the outset her movie will be female-focused and indeed barely three men feature for the most part, one of whom is, naturally, Smith’s Charles “Charlie” Manson. The title, meanwhile, comes from the repetitive, robotic manner in which Manson’s followers parrot his teachings to others. Charlie says sexual exploration is a good thing, Charlie says women shouldn’t be trusted with sharp objects, etc, etc.
The very first image sees Hannah Murray (of Skins and Game of Thrones fame) washing blood off in the shower before she and a couple loopy cohorts land themselves behind bars for their crimes, being coached by the long-suffering prison teacher, Karlene (a tender, emotionally-charged Merritt Wever). She sees something worth saving in these lost young women but, as a variety of well-placed flashbacks show, the criminal trio might be too far gone. Charlie’s presence looms large even when he’s nowhere near them.
The framing device gives Harron’s film an edge, enlivening it from the staid and exposition-heavy prison drama it could have been. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Murray’s Leslie / Lulu, who’s told upon rocking up at the infamous farm that “we all belong to Charlie.” By focusing on Manson’s predominantly female followers (Gossip Girl‘s Chace Crawford shows up in an anemic supporting performance, clearly attempting to follow the footsteps of fellow teen heartthrobs Zac Efron and Ross Lynch without managing to nab the main role), Harron highlights the inherent sexism of his cult.
Men eat first, men handle all the money, and sexual freedom benefits men only (when it purports to benefit women, it’s in a public setting where the female participant remains under the male’s control). Charlie rules with an iron fist, but rarely lashes out physically. Instead, his often harsh words sting like a slap across the face. The effect is seen mostly through Murray, whose naive, wide-open face — the same face that made Cassie confess to Sid she hadn’t eaten in days so she cold be “lovely” — betrays the shock and terror she’s feeling inside, rooted to the spot in this strange place. Lulu is trapped in plain sight, but nobody notices.
The English actress is incredibly well cast here. Watching Lulu’s sense of self, her very identity, being eroded as she tries desperately to find her place in the world is heartbreaking. Likewise, Lulu is the first to give Karlene’s teachings a chance, even if she’s still technically under Charlie’s control. There’s a sense all of Manson’s followers were looking for a place to fit in and be loved, which is why they succumbed to his more maddening moments, as when he quite literally coaches them on how to stab and kill strangers. Nowhere is this clearer than in Lulu.
Dr. Who alum Smith is an actor with a permanently upturned nose, always looking down the camera at the plebs below. His smarmy arrogance works like gangbusters as Manson. He’s well-cast as an egotistical, talentless prick who believed The Beatles were communicating through their music and who couldn’t handle not getting the shot at fame he believed was owed to him. The fake beard and hair Smith is tasked with wearing to play the cult leader aren’t completely convincing, but his performance is faultless. And the songs — there are so many terrible songs it’s enough to turn anyone to murder.
Karlene is a great indication of how nuts most of Manson’s teachings were. She communicates her disgust with a slight tilt of her head or narrowing of her eyes, rather than outright telling her charges that they’ve all been had (though she does, eventually, crack somewhat). The question of whether it would be crueler to make these young women face the reality of what they’ve done, rather than allowing them serve their lengthy sentences out relatively unperturbed, is challenged and discussed without sermonizing. Karlene isn’t there to judge, but to help, and it’s fitting the film ends with her rather than Manson or his followers.
Charlie Says is a film about female solidarity in even the harshest circumstances, rather than yet another take on the Charles Manson story. Harron shoots female bodies lovingly, without judgement, never exploiting these women the way their great leader demonstrably did. Cinematographer Crille Forsberg captures the farm-set sequences with a hazy dreaminess, while the prison portions are more sanitary and grey, emphasizing the difference between the real world and Manson World (imagine how bad those people smelled — he’s the only one who takes a bath the entire film).
When Karlene does engineer a breakthrough, it’s signaled not with sun from the heavens, but a resounding thud as it dawns on at least one of the culprits, if not all three, what’s really happened to them. It’s fitting that it takes another woman to force the change, and one who really cares about the fate of those who survived Manson. Even more fittingly, Harron provides zero follow-up on the man himself as the film concludes, once again reiterating that hers is a story of the women left behind, rather than the monster who put them there.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Mary Harron
Writer(s): Guinevere Turner, Karlene Faith (book), Ed Sanders (book)
Stars: Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Chace Crawford, Suki Waterhouse, Merritt Wever
Release date: May 10, 2019 (limited)
Studio/Production Company: Epic Level Entertainment
Run Time: 104 minutes