Film Review – Charlie Says (2018)

“We did what we had to do.”

Stumbling into a world without any reason, logic or positive beliefs, three women committed murderous acts for one of the most infamous men in crime and cult history, in Charlie Says, director Mary Harron gives us a peek behind the minds of these ‘Manson girls’ as they spend time incarcerated, reflecting back on the events that led their lives into viscous downward spirals.

With carrying performances from Hannah Murray and Matt Smith, the two stars known best for their television work manage to create lasting impressions on the big screen, with Smith‘s portrayal of Charles Manson feeling eerily easy for the actor, a far cry from the wholesome shoes of The Doctor. Both him and Murray overshadow the rest of the cast here, and even those you’ll recognise from elsewhere can’t bring any more to the plate than the two leads can. With society’s current fascination of true life crime, more and more actors are stepping up to put on infamous personas and showing themselves to be more than capable villains. Despite being the titular character, Smith’s Manson shouldn’t be the main focus here, and yet only a short while into the runtime the women’s narratives feel insignificant, and only have meaning because Manson is a part of them, which ironically is what the characters (and the real people they are based on) believed as well. Like Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer and Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Smith’s take on Manson feels as close to the mark as anyone could get, and obviously a perfect choice for the role. But even though I could just sit and praise him for his efforts I don’t want to, I want to be saying how brilliantly Murray and Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón were in their roles and were clear standouts but they never really come close.

Harron is best known for American Psycho, it is easily one of the most definitive serial killer fictions, and features plenty of iconic imagery and dialogue, but so much of what made that film great is missing from Charlie Says and perhaps that’s because Harron tried to follow a formula that this film just won’t accommodate without falling flat too often. In American Psycho, Harron’s leading nutcase was the core focus of the story, and we experienced things from his perspective, by tearing the focus away from Manson sporadically and never experiencing anything from his perspective, Charlie Says feels like it should either push Manson to one side or give him the centre stage.

What the film does give the audience with the narrative arcs of the three women is the ability to think through a social dilemma, are these women to blame for their actions? Where can we even draw the line between murderer and victim? To step out of the film for a moment it’s easy to see it in context as what it is; horrifying, and more of a look than I ever needed into the life of the Manson family.

Signature Entertainment presents Charlie Says on Amazon Prime Video 2nd April

Crime, Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | 2nd April 2021 (UK) | Prime Video | Dir.Mary Harron | Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Suki Waterhouse