By Ethlie Ann Vare
LOS ANGELES, CA (The Hollywood Times) 5-6-2019 – We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders: August 9, 1969 — the day the Sixties died, according to Joan Didion, although I personally put it a little later, at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 9 of the same year. Either way, there’s a lot of Manson Family fact and fiction in the ether right now. There’s dramatic versions in the recent Bad Times at the El Royale and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a good podcast documentary, Young Charlie. And now there’s Charlie Says, by Alias Grace and L Word director Mary Harron.
You will not be surprised to hear that this film focuses on the women in the Manson Family cult as much or more than on the cult leader. And it turns out the release had nothing to do with the 50th anniversary of the killing spree. It just takes a long time to get a movie made — especially when the movie is about women and made by women.
“I first talked about it with Guinevere (Turner) in 2014,” says Harron. “She and I have always been interested in domestic abuse, and saw the Manson Family as a larger version of an abusive family.” The director and screenwriter had worked together before on American Psycho and The Notorious Betty Page. And Turner is even more perfect for this assignment, as it so happens she was herself raised in a cult. She understands on a visceral level that family-by-choice is a strong bond, and cults can be happy, wonderful things… until they are not.
“Rather than objectify the Manson women as zombie cult followers,” says Harron, “I wanted to see them as regular human beings who could have been your daughter/your sister/your cousin… even yourself. To see how they went from young hippies looking or freedom, to people involved in monstrous crimes against completely innocent strangers. Losing touch with reality is a process. We’re all looking for someone to tell us the right path — but you have to be careful who you listen to.
“I’m very interested in the danger when someone stops listening to the voice of reason inside. I think in Hannah Murray’s great performance you see someone who’s hearing that voice — something’s not right! something’s not right! — and actively turning it off so she can be a loyal follower to Charlie. And that’s tragic.”
Game of Throne’s Murray may seem an odd choice to play Leslie Van Houten, but Harron went even deeper into British TV to find her Charlie: Matt Smith, Doctor Who himself. All but unrecognizable in shaggy hair and full beard, the handsome six-footer uses every actor’s trick to embody the short, ugly (yet still somehow charismatic) Charles Manson.
“In an ideal world,” says Harron, “we would have found someone who was 5’4” and not good looking. But in the end, you have to go with the person who can light up the screen.” Of course, the intriguing mystery of Manson is how he was able to hold sway over all those followers without being a person who could light up a screen….
“Charles Manson was a monster, a narcissistic sociopath completely lacking in empathy. But you want to understand him to play him with any depth. His touchiness. His insecurity. Matt’s a great actor.”
The framing of the film first finds Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) confined to a special security unit at the California Institute for Women after the California death penalty was reversed. Enter Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver), a student social worker, who specializes in victims of domestic abuse. The script is based in part on Faith’s memoir of working with the “Manson Girls” to help them break free of Charlie’s programming, still firmly in place even after years of incarceration.
Intercut with this is Van Houten’s arrival at Spahn Ranch, her induction into the Manson Family, and the events that led inexorably to the murderous Helter Skelter of August 1969.
The flashback scenes use a hand-held, documentary style to give a sense of verisimilitude, and director Harron does a good job of not glamorizing either the girls or their leader. The sex isn’t sexy. The murders are not gory. Unfortunately, this often means the movie is not exciting.
As Van Houten gets deeper and deeper into the Family and Charlie gets more and more unstable, we know where this is all leading but the story still maintains its tension. That’s what drama does: In a good performance of Hamlet, you still hope that, somehow, this time, he doesn’t screw it all up.
Karlene decides her job is to “remind the women who they were before they met Charles Manson” — even though the movie tells us nothing about their before-lives. What made them so unhappy they so willing to give themselves over to this dumpster-diving personality cult? But Karlene’s dilemma is that if she makes them truly recognize and repent their crimes, she condemns them to a lifetime of agonizing remorse. If she believes they were Charlie’s victims, too, in their own way, what’s the truly moral thing to do? Mary Harron doesn’t take a position.
“I didn’t make this film as advocacy,” she says. “I made the film to try and understand them better.”
- Suki Waterhouse
- Hannah Murray
- Matt Smith
- Sosie Bacon
- Marianne Rendón
- Chace Crawford
- Merritt Wever
- Annabeth Gish
- Kayli Carter
- Grace Van Dien
- Mary Harron
- Cindi Rice
- Jeremy M. Rosen
- John Frank Rosenblum
- Dana Guerin
- Jeremy Rosen
- Guinevere Turner
Director of photography: Crille Forsberg
Production designer: Dins Danielsen
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Music: Keegan DeWitt
PRESENTED BY IFC FILMS | UNITED STATES | MAY 10TH, 2019 | 111 MINS | R
Opens in Limited Release May 10th and VOC May 17th