‘Charlie Says’ Offers Another Look Inside The Manson Family

by Ben Martin

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a fascinating and horrible American tragedy. I’m speaking, of course, about the Tate-LaBianca murders; not to mention the other murders perpetrated by members of The Manson Family in 1969. The heinous crimes orchestrated by Charles Manson and carried out by his followers quickly made these hippies turned murderers into an object of morbid curiosity. Over the five decades since the family’s crimes,  numerous books, documentaries, podcasts, and movies have been made about the topic. The latest of these is the new dramatic biopic, Charlie Says (2019):

Unlike past efforts, which focused on Manson himself, Charlie Says is told from the perspective of three women who were part of “the family“: Leslie ‘Lulu’ Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Marianne Rendin). During their incarnation, the ladies begin having sessions with the resident prison therapist, Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver). Throughout these sessions, the former Manson girls recount their lives in the cult; relationships with Charles Manson (Matt Smith), and the events that led up to the Tate-LaBianca murders. This threesome’s tale of incredibly misguided youth unfolds by jumping between their prison therapy sessions in 1972; and their lives as part of the cult, living on Spahn Ranch in 1969.

This movie is presented from a feminist perspective. Fittingly, one of the most daring duo’s of female collaborators in the film industry should be responsible for crafting Charlie Says. Writer-directors Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Guinevere Turner (BloodRayne); a pair who are most well known for two previous collaborations. American Psycho (2000), another tale of charisma and murder set during a different unique decade for the country. Following that, Harron and Turner re-teamed for the biopic of another cult icon of a different sort, The Notorious Bettie Page (2005). As with those efforts, Charlie Says once again has Harron at the helm, taking Turner’s screenplay from page-to-screen.

Thanks to the use of female perspective and flashback structure, Charlie Says manages to be a pretty fresh take on this piece of history. The film manages to show Manson and his followers as real, disturbed, and misguided people as opposed to just boogymen and women. It’s thanks to the film’s cast that the characters are at least a little empathetic. The three lead actors give solid performances, and Matt Smith (Doctor Who) captures Manson’s mannerisms and overall presence. (Although he doesn’t quite get the voice right.) 

However, I have trouble feeling a lot of empathy/sympathy for real-life killers, misguided or otherwise. So while the film didn’t completely fail in that regard, it did lack backstory for the central trio and how they all came to live on Spahn Ranch. Sure, residing on a movie lot, turned hippie commune, with a folk singing guy and dropping acid seems fun. But still, I wanted more background on how these people came to make such a choice. (Check out my review for My Friend Dahmer for a prime example of how backstory can be used to evoke emotion for a homicidal human).

While Charlie Says could have used another half-hour of backstory and some psychedelic visuals, I still enjoyed the film. What differentiates this film is that it manages to tackle this piece of horrific history with a bit of grace and restraint. The same cannot be said for other flicks that have dealt with this same subject matter. Admittedly, I don’t know that the general audience would appreciate the movie in review. However, I certainly recommend Charlie Says to anyone who has an interest in this grisly portion of history.

Charlie Says Is Available on Digital HD, Blu-Ray, & DVD!

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