This August will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tate Murders, the savage slaughter of five people—including pregnant actress Sharon Tate—at the hands of the Manson Family. Now, Hollywood is looking back on this chilling crime that sent shockwaves across the nation, with three very different films. First came the exploitative horror flick The Haunting of Sharon Tate. This summer, Quentin Tarantino will unveil eyebrow-raising comedy Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But next will be Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which explores the inner lives of the infamous Manson Girls.
Charlie Says centers on Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon), and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon), winding back and forth between their time on cult leader Charles Manson’s farm to their days on an isolated wing of the California Institution for Women. Because the state had overturned the death penalty, these three convicted killers sat in a row of cells on death row for years, with only each other and the guards for company. That is until social worker and feminist advocate Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) came along with books, college course work, and challenges to the edicts “Charlie” had instilled.
“Charlie says” is not just the film’s title, but also its chilling refrain, echoed by the Manson Girls as they recount his deranged doctrine and outlandish promises. With wide eyes and wider smiles, they speak of the bottomless pit that would protect the faithful from the race war they’d aimed to incite with their murders, and how they’d rise after, ready to rule as elves, who’d sprout wings. They are likewise obliviously joyful recounting the stories of Charlie’s farm, where he entertained the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, offered his “girls” to visitors as if they were cigarettes, and plotted his music career—and failing that—revolution. Harron leans into these women’s perspective by painting these flashbacks in hues so warm you can practically feel the sunshine on your skin and smell the sweat of summer days and nighttime orgies.
In real life, Karlene Faith saw past these notorious killers’ harrowing crimes to the women they were before. Based partially on her book, The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, Charlie Says aims to honor Faith’s compassionate view of the Manson Girls to state bluntly, “Maybe they are victims too.” Specifically, the film—through Faith’s character—suggests the Manson Girls were victims of domestic abuse who felt so bound by Charlie’s possessive—and volatile—brand of love they would literally kill for him. 50 years later, it might be time to attempt such a nuanced conversation about the underlying causes of the extreme violence of the Manson Murders. However, Harron misses out on nuance by rushing through some crucial moments and avoiding some of the most shocking details.
The film’s first act races through the introduction of Faith, the Girls’ circumstances (23 hours a day in cells on death row for an indefinite period), and her acceptance to teach them. Why she’d take on this controversial assignment is initially ignored, which seems to spite the audience’s need to comprehend her compassion. Eventually, she will speak of her own “bad man,” drawing a connection between herself and this infamous trio. But by then it’s too little too late. And while Harron drapes the flashbacks in honey colors, it’s not enough to soften Manson.
Matt Smith wears a bedraggled beard, musty brown locks, and faded denim to play Charlie Manson. He’s got a quick smile, a jaunty banter, and a loose physicality that gives him a ragged charm. But he’s Charlie Manson. It’ll take more to lower the audience’s guard against the man made famous for murder, racist rhetoric, and carving a swastika into his forehead. We walk into this movie suspicious of to outright loathing him. Some guitar playing, love songs, and smiles won’t change that. Instead, I sat on edge and in judgment, watching newcomer Leslie—soon rechristened Lulu—fall into the Family while blithely ignoring red flags. Charlie speaks of love then insults his lovers’ “tiny female brain(s).” He promises “no rules,” but prohibits his women from carrying money, dictates their diets, and makes sure they eat only after the men are served. He was a loser who failed in the real world, so invented one of his own to rule. But the slide from aspiring singer/songwriter to Jesus Rebooted happens so abruptly in Charlie Says that it’s impossible to empathize with the girls. Perhaps if Guinevere Turner’s script had delved into their pre-Manson lives, we might understand what trauma led them to accept this demeaning domination as love. But instead, Charlie Says follows another of Manson’s edicts for his girls: “We don’t talk about our pasts.”
The more troubling omission; however, is how Harron chooses to show—or rather not show—the murders. The Tate Murders’ sequence leaps from the Family’s car ride there to bloody bodies on the lawn, then Tate, restrained and crying out for the life of her unborn child. Charles ‘Tex’ Watson (Chace Crawford) will slice her cheek and that’s all we’ll see of that night’s carnage. While I was grateful for Harron not making a ghoulish spectacle of this horrid massacre, the LaBianca murder scene suggested avoiding exploitation of these horrors wasn’t her only motive. There again we see Tex enact violence, bloody and brutal. But Harron shies away from revealing the violence perpetrated by these women.
Left out is Susan stabbing Tate or Katie stabbing anyone, much less writing “DEATH TO PIGS” with the blood of her victims. We will see Leslie swing a knife toward Rosemary LaBianca. However, Harron keeps the hit out of frame, instead of focusing on Leslie’s face as it’s sprayed with blood, as she screams. With this framing, Harron chooses not to focus on the victims who were killed, but how their savage murders impacted the women who committed them, then sang cheerfully as they walked to their trial. (Another disturbing fact that won’t be shown in the film.)
Watching Charlie Says, I was reminded of Netflix’s recent true-crime doc series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Both aim to demystify the nightmarish violence committed by people who seemed nice and normal. Bundy seemed “the kind of guy you’d want your sister to marry.” The Manson girls seemed like happy-go-lucky, dumpster diving, free-loving hippies. Their crimes were not just horrific, they rattled society’s concept of who is a killer. But neither of these productions is interested in that as much as uncovering the why of it all. And so each gives voice to killers, searching for their humanity through audio tapes or florid flashbacks. But what is lost in both cases is what these killers have taken. The real victims are treated as little more than set dressings to tragedy. Their humanity lost amid archival footage of a preening sadist or a close-up of a pretty girl covered in blood she seems surprised she spilled.
Charlie Says makes its North American Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1. A theatrical release will follow on May 17.
Header Image Source: IFC Films