As we mark 50 years since the moon landings, this summer sees another, more grisly anniversary – the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends at the hands of the followers of Charles Manson. The events that shook Hollywood get a high profile outing next month with the release of Tarantino’s much awaited Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and, while it appears not to have them as its main focus, they do play a part and the film stars Margot Robbie as Tate.
Before that, however, we have Charlie Says, which had a limited release in American cinemas but in the UK has gone straight to digital. To say it’s more concerned with Manson’s cult and the events leading up to the murders would be to simplify matters because, instead of putting him at the centre of the story, director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner concentrate on the three girls who participated in the murders and ended up in prison. We first meet Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) in their respective cells. They are kept together, but away from the rest of the inmates and are allowed to take college courses under the tutelage of Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) who, over time, tries to wean them off the remarkably addictive and tenacious influence of Manson so that they understand the reality of their actions.
“Charlie says” is their mantra, their justification for everything, even though at the outset they’ve not had any contact with him for three years. Such is the power and effectiveness of his brainwashing. What becomes apparent in the flashback sequences of their time living on an abandoned western set beneath the Hollywood sign is that they, as well as all the other members of the “family” (mainly women) are lost souls, looking for acceptance and love. They find it after a fashion, but at a price, and at least one of them comes to recognise that their vulnerability was the reason they were more than happy to come under Manson’s influence.
Although he doesn’t take centre stage in the narrative, Manson’s presence is constant. In the flashbacks, he’s played by Matt Smith: probably taller and more physically imposing than Manson himself, he still bears more than a passing resemblance to the real man and is frighteningly persuasive, if perhaps not quite as charismatic as you might expect. Not that he has a lowly opinion of himself, persuading his followers that he’s included in the Bible and the shots of them having dinner together, with him at the centre, are clearly designed with The Last Supper in mind. His theories make no sense, certainly not to the audience, nor to Faith, but his followers are so in his thrall that they swallow them wholesale. It also means that the latter stages of the film lack a coherence that it genuinely needs.
Harron also directed American Psycho, arguably a good description of Manson as well, although Charlie Says doesn’t confront his crimes as much as you might want. Instead it almost fights shy of them until towards the end when the murders occur and much of those scenes are left to the imagination. This has none of the humour of her best-known offering, leaving you instead with a sense of creeping menace, of the vulnerability of the girls involved and of the way they were manipulated. There’s nothing funny about that.
The Manson story is very familiar – documentaries, films, TV movies, novels, even an episode of South Park have all featured it – but, in truth, Charlie Says doesn’t shed any especially new light it. Instead, there’s the definite sense of déjà vu and the lingering feeling that Harron couldn’t find anything new to say about the subject after all this time. And that leads to more than a little disappointment.
Freda Cooper |★★ 1/2
Biography, Crime, Drama | UK, digital, 26 July (2019) | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Mary Harron | Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Merritt Weaver.