Charlie Says, 2019.
Directed by Mary Harron.
Starring Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Merritt Wever, Matt Smith, Suki Waterhouse, Chace Crawford, Annabeth Gish, Kayli Carter, Cameron Gellman, Matt Riedy, and Grace Van Dien
Three young women were sentenced to death in the infamous Manson murder case, but when the death penalty was lifted, their sentence became life imprisonment. One young graduate student was sent in to teach them – and through her we witness their transformations as they face the reality of their horrific crimes.
It’s clear from the beginning that the purpose of Charlie Says (which, as what marketing there is has pointed out, is written and directed by Mary Harron of American Psycho notoriety) is to examine the mental well-being of the various women known psychopath Charles Manson had under his spell. However, problems arise from the very beginning, as Leslie (Hannah Murray, most known as Gilly on HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones) is introduced to the California ranch, cult, and leader himself, all of whom don’t have to do much of anything to brainwash her into sticking around. The very basis of what is going to drive the plot is unearned, which splinters off into a number of other issues.
The film also flips back and forth from 1969 (the indoctrination period and leading up to the infamous Sharon Tate murder) and three years later, where a trio of Charles Manson’s most devoted female acolytes are locked up together in a heavily protected institution, where they are also given educational and rehabilitation treatment from Merritt Wever’s Karlene Faith (the script from Guinevere Turner lifts from the book penned by the real-life Karlene and her interactions with these girls). As jarring as many of the transitions between time frames are (the editing here is amateurish, which is frustrating considering other crucial filmmaking areas such as cinematography and lighting successfully capture an uncomfortable and mentally unstable environment), Charlie Says works best here, watching Karlene attempt to re-correct the brainwashing only to eventually become convinced that the only thing that can be done is to force them to watch footage and coverage of their crimes until it breaks them down into realizing what they’ve done.
Naturally, throughout all of these conversations we get to hear most of the batshit insane things they were told by Charles Manson and believed; everything from sprouting wings to living underground to helter-skelter crackpot theories to killing off egos to turning them against their own family and more. Not only do we hear it from the girls themselves, but the film often shows us what happened firsthand in 1969. And going back to the iffy establishment of Leslie sticking around with this group of unhinged hippies, it’s rarely easy to accept why she did stay; it’s almost as if there is an entire first act missing so the film can focus more on Charles Manson’s musical ambitions, orgies, and the inevitable depictions of senseless slaughter (something that the recently released on Netflix Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile wisely shied away from in order to further focus on the charisma and charm that serial killers do exude while hiding the darker parts of their minds).
That’s another aspect where Charlie Says feels like a misfire; Matt Smith has certainly physically transformed into the unkempt and often dirty looking Charles Manson, he’s got the facial hair, and he’s got down the highly unnerving eye movements and hand gestures. In other words, he looks the part of the psychopath. Unfortunately, his acting performance is missing some spice that would truly make it believable for anyone and everyone to abandon their lives and start a new life with him. It’s made aware that he is mostly going after unwanted and unloved, likely emotionally abused and insecure women, but much of his line readings sound like a crazy person versus a magnanimous crazy person that’s enigmatic and generates intrigue to follow. To be fair, it’s not an easy historical figure to play, so it also doesn’t help that most of the scenes essentially are just checking the boxes of ludicrous things most common people know Charles Manson told his followers. The film basically goes nowhere, often leaving the aftermath bits as the only real engaging portion.
The post-murders material asks audiences whether they believe these women are still victims despite their heinous actions, and it’s a lot to wrestle with. Unfortunately, Leslie is the only girl with any real sense of character (the other two girls have their moments during the 1969 scenes, namely an outburst of backtalk to Charles that disturbingly evolves into an enjoyed rape segment), but it’s also a misguided approach as the film sometimes goes too far encouraging sympathy. Leslie seemingly consistently questions whether she should stay or not, but does anyway; these small moments of moral consciousness coming to light almost feel disingenuous, and not earning her complexity. Then again, as previously mentioned, Charlie Says fails the character (the film definitely has something going for by pinning its story on the traumatized women but botches it) from the beginning and is never quite able to recover, although the events that transpire and the behavior of Charles Manson (not to mention how mentally damaged and brainwashed these women are) make for easily if discomforting digestible content.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com