The Charlie of Charlie Says is Charles Manson, and what he says are the exhortations that held a group of mostly women (the so-called Manson family) in his thrall and compelled them to stab seven people to death over two nights in August 1969. Directed by Mary Harron from a script by Guinevere Turner, the film is framed as a women’s-liberation story. It follows the attempts of a prison counselor, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), to penetrate the Charlie-worshipping fog of three family members — Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) — whose death sentences have been commuted (along, notoriously, with Manson’s) following the California Supreme Court’s People v. Anderson decision. (California’s death penalty was rewritten and reinstated but not for those who’d been sentenced prior to 1972.) Charlie Says jumps back and forth between Faith’s conversations with the trio and the events that began with Van Houten’s entry into the family, which was then ensconced on a ranch in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. Manson would allow no books other than the Bible. Faith begins by having them read Our Bodies, Ourselves.
A bit heavy-handed, that, but true to the early ’70s and very much on point. The Manson of Charlie Says (played by Matt Smith) exerts a particular kind of hold on these women’s bodies, which he deems the property of all — provided, of course, that said bodies are available to him on demand and to anyone else who needs servicing. (George Spahn, the blind old man who allows them to live on his ranch, is shown receiving sexual favors for his generosity.)
Manson is something of an evil genius in how he redefines freedom for his “girls,” ostensibly liberating them from the strictures of a repressive society and even Time Itself while plying them with acid and cementing his increasingly violent authority. The women are collectively overjoyed when Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (James Trevena-Brown) records one of Manson’s songs, collectively giddy at the prospect of hip music producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian) offering Manson a contract, and collectively upset when the contract is withheld. They drink in his forecast of a race war (Helter Skelter) and practice stabbing people with long knives. The Rebecca Solnit–inspired coinage mansplaining has lost some of its seriousness with overuse, but Charlie Says depicts its corrosive effects over time. Manson moves into the women’s heads and rearranges the furniture. He’s a reductio ad absurdum as well as a worst-case scenario.
Smith plays Manson as a wild-eyed cretin but with just enough of the hippie-singer dreamboat about him to make him credibly magnetic to a particular kind of “flower child.” Does Manson believe his shtick, or is it just that — shtick? Smith’s performance successfully blurs the line. It’s a shtick that hardens into an ethos and then a design for living. If we didn’t know where all this was going, we might enjoy the Manson girls’ exuberance. At times they recall Pamela Des Barres’s groupie collective the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously). (Kayli Carter’s “Squeaky” Fromme is especially radiant.) But the score, by Keegan DeWitt, wipes away even momentary doubts: This is a bad trip that’s about to get worse.
The Manson scenes are panoramic, creepy in ways that evoke a place and time as well as any film I’ve seen. But the prison scenes are muddier, harder to read. In part that’s for a good reason: Harron is too naturally skeptical to go whole hog on the melodramatic “awakening” theme. She has a satirist’s eye. The director who made the Valerie Solanas story I Shot Andy Warhol is sympathetic to radical-feminist manifestos but also recognizes their potential to go too far, and no one leaving her film The Notorious Bettie Page could have a simpleminded take on the ’50s bondage queen — depicted as a sexual-subjugation object but also a woman who had a hell of a good time playing her role. Faith doesn’t speak in empowerment placards; she’s more interested in listening and teasing out the tensions in what the three women say. (Wever’s performance is characteristically rich and nuanced.) The problem is that the movie’s view of its protagonist, Van Houten, is so wobbly.
That’s not the actress’s fault. The English-born Hannah Murray is best known as the ex-wildling Gilly in Game of Thrones (last seen departing Winterfell with Samwell), and she has a tremulous quality even in stillness. The movie gives Van Houten (dubbed “Lulu” by Manson) a dual consciousness: She plainly registers the contradictions in Manson’s words and recoils from his abuse of women but goes along with him anyway, because … well, it’s tough to say. She regards the butchered body of Rosemary LaBianca with horror but moves toward it, as if in a trance, and delivers 16 stabs because … well, it’s tough to say. (The film strongly suggests that all the stabs were postmortem, which was likely not the case.) Such a clear schism between Van Houten’s body and the “self” looking on, appalled, makes her more conventionally sympathetic — but also makes it harder to accept that she was so hypnotized by Manson that it took more than five years in prison for her to come fully to her senses and reject his worldview. The person we’ve watched didn’t seem to give herself to Manson that completely.
A postscript reveals that Charlie Says was based on a memoir by Faith (written with Ed Sanders) and made without Van Houten’s input. You can understand why she’d be reluctant to talk, even to filmmakers so obviously empathetic. Still in prison, she has over the past two decades made a vigorous case for parole and has some prominent people in her camp, among them John Waters. (An account of their relationship appears in Waters’s book Role Models, in which he semi-facetiously compares himself and his ’60s–’70s troupe of artistic “criminals” with the Manson family. He also laments his use of the Mansons as a punch line, which seems fair, though I will always treasure the postcard I gave him to sign circa Hairspray of Norman Rockwell’s “Girl With Black Eye”: He drew a little X on the girl’s forehead.) But it’s too bad Harron and Turner didn’t have more access to Van Houten’s thoughts. A social worker’s take on a lost soul can be valuable, but in a drama it’s too orienting. You want to see how a person could surrender herself — her self — to something so diabolical, which demands a higher level of insanity than the filmmakers can muster.