Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, arriving in July, isn’t the first Manson Family murders / Sharon Tate-related movie hitting theaters during the 50th anniversary year of those abominable crimes.
The first out was The Haunting of Sharon Tate starring Hillary Duff, which was largely dismissed as exploitative. The second, newly arrived in theaters, is Charlie Says (Sharon Tate, played by Grace van Dien, is a very minor character in the film). Tarantino’s film will feature Margot Robbie as the doomed actress. And still a fourth picture is coming, a biographical drama called Tate starring Kate Bosworth, though its focus will not be on the actress’s murder. This true crime story is quite obviously all the rage in Hollywood at the moment.
Whether or not these films are appropriate in their timing and conception will be up to individual viewers to determine. As ever, how creepy or opportunistic true crime stories feel is largely dependent on artistic ambition and execution. But if you’re going to make a picture like this at all, director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, the women behind Charlie Says, are the filmmakers to choose…
TheHarron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and screenwriter Turner (who came to fame via the New Queer Cinema of the 90s in Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman), are best known these days for the enduring classic American Psycho (2000) a masterful subversion of a dubious misogynist novel. They’re also no stranger to biographical takes on infamous complex women having made The Notorious Bettie Page together as well.
This unique skillset comes in handy with this drama, which begins at a somewhat clinical remove while it considers three loyal Manson followers: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon — trivia alert: the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick). The trio are serving life sentences in prison in side-by-side cels for carrying out some of the murders. An empathetic if not quite sympathetic feminist grad student named Karlene Faith (the ever-watchable Merritt Wever of Godless and Nurse Jackie fame) enters their lives as a prison-appointed teacher and counsellor of sorts and the three young women begin to come to grips (or not) with their complicity in the heinous crimes.
We meet Charles Manson and his cult in flashbacks. In prison the women are always beginning sentences with “Charlie says…,” hence the film’s title, and Karlene soon sees how deep their brainwashing runs. Unfortunately, given the sordid subject matter and the film’s point of view, the scenes at the Manson ranch are more compelling than the prison material. Matt Smith harnesses his amoral screen charisma to play up the seductive confidence of this particular demon but he also underlines his relentless manipulative pettiness. He avoids playing the deep insanity which is for the better since that’s more than apparent once the violence begins.
In one of the movie’s most memorable and most pathetic sequences, we see his weak attempts to become a rock star. He blames his failure on others of course, and the women are the first target. Though Manson humiliatingly instructs one of his second hand men (Chace Crawford) on how to pleasure a woman in front of the whole “family”, female pleasure and empowerment are never the goal despite all the group sex and the instructions to love your own body. The women are consistently claimed as sexual property or used as sexual props (in Manson’s embarrassing “concert”) or bargaining chips, and thinking for yourself risks ridicule and humiliation or gets you banished from ‘the family’.
Harron and Turner wisely don’t absolve these young women of their violent crimes with either their careful framing of the crimes or the dialogue — nor do they judge them for their childish views (they seem baffled, in particular, when wondering if Karlene is a lesbian or meeting a black man who doesn’t match their racist assumptions). But the filmmakers do draw damning lines directly to the ease of male privilege (even in communities like this one ostensibly off the grid and outside the mainstream patriarchal society) and learned female subservience in the face of unmistakable misogyny.
Hannah Murray’s performance, in particular, works hard to thread the needle. We initially see Manson’s family through her eyes, as the newest recruit, and she’s one of only two women in the flashbacks who seem to have their own minds. That she willingly tosses hers away anyway, even after seeing right through him, is the paradox and the tragedy of her own descent into hell.
But that’s a tough needle to thread.
Tasked with the supremely difficult work of portraying naive women who fell for Manson’s self-serving and contradictory preaching enough to lose themselves completely, the actresses struggle on occassion to make sense of their characters. But then, so too, does the film’s audience proxy, Karlene Faith, who is seeking to understand them and wrestling with whether or not she should even continue trying.
In the end the film sadly can’t reach its rather lofty psychological goals. Perhaps you’d need to write a whole book — Karlene Faith did with “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten” on which the film is partially based — to even begin to make sense of these willfully brainwashed lost souls. While Charlie Says doesn’t measure up to Harron’s best work (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol, and The Notorious Bettie Page), it’s nevertheless an intermittently absorbing and unexpected angle from which to try (in vain) to comprehend this incomprehensibly tragic chapter in American history.