Given that our society has spent much of this current decade commemorating 50-year anniversaries of monumental events from the turbulent 1960s, it should come as no surprise that a bevy of Charles Manson-related projects are cropping up near the half-century mark of his murder spree. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says gets a bit of a jump on Quentin Tarantino’s high-profile Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and stakes out a different ground in the ensuing Manson content wars by focusing on the women that the notorious killer lured into his orbit. Her film sheds light on a crucial element of the story that often gets lost in the long shadow Manson casts in our society and finds fresh relevance in the midst of the mythology.
Charlie Says makes for a fascinating addition to Harron’s filmography (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page), which is filled with protagonists pushing boundaries of acceptable displays of common taboos in America, be it sex, violence or money. It should come as little surprise that a director who birthed the cinematic iteration of Patrick Bateman might also come to study Manson on screen. Both are men with charming yet chilling exteriors who can trade in the jargon of their era to propagate a dangerous ideology. For Manson, it’s finding a way to sell his domination and control as enlightenment and empowerment, a contradiction that star Matt Smith sells with a manic confidence.
“Every girl should have a daddy like Charlie.” “Our lives started when we met Charlie.” Sayings like these are common on the Barker Ranch, where Manson convened his “family” to participate in his dangerous cult of personality. Cut off from their families and other sources of information that might discredit Manson, men and women alike suspended logic and reason to join a commune-like group that bent to indulge some of its leaders most bizarre and sociopathic whims. The film cares little about the spectacle of the bloodshed and more about the mechanisms of control that enabled such crimes to occur in the first place.
Moreover, Harron and her frequent screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner are far more intrigued by the female members. Charlie Says is at its best when probing their paradoxical involvement in The Family, examining how they were lured in by the “free love” hippie rhetoric of Manson only to become trapped in his pimp-like grip. This compromising of 60s ideals flows naturally with the film’s thesis that the murder of Sharon Tate and other Hollywood denizens marked the decade’s end and ushered in the conformity of the 70s. Indeed, Charlie Says frames the ranch and the murders from the perspective of the convicted criminals behind bars — the metaphor hardly needs more spelling out.
Much of Charlie Says centers around the efforts of graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) to break Manson’s spell on the incarcerated women who remain rapt by his power and charisma. Faith must battle the antipathy of the system to her efforts; the staff debates the value of giving the women back “themselves” if they’re never going to see the real world again. But she persists in fighting to break the feedback loop, wheeling in experts to debate their worldview and televised footage of the carnage they left behind to clear their neural pathways. The film gets a little heavy-handed in these sequences, as Turner often uses them for exposition dumps, but these scenes help establish the depravity that Harron rarely chooses to depict. Though, when you really think about it, what’s scarier than having your ideals inverted and weaponized to commit random acts of violence? If Charlie Says marks the official kickoff of Manson-50-years-later discourse, we’re lucky that it prioritizes the insidiousness of his ideology.
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