Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Movie Review: Charlie Says

Charlie Says ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Mary Harron.
Written by: Guinevere Turner inspired by the books by Karlene Faith and Ed Sanders.
Starring: Hannah Murray (Leslie Van Houten), Matt Smith (Charles Manson), Merritt Wever (Karlene Faith), Sosie Bacon (Patricia Krenwinkel), Marianne Rendon (Susan Atkins), Suki Waterhouse (Mary Bruner), Annabeth Gish (Virginia Carlson), Chace Crawford (Tex Watson), Grace Van Dien (Sharon Tate), Kimmy Shields (Vicki), Bridger Zadina (Paul Watkins), Kayli Carter (Squeaky Fromme), India Ennenga (Linda Kasabian).
I think that if you’re going to do a Charles Manson movie at this point you need to bring something new to it. Time will tell if Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does that or not – but so far this year we’ve seen two other films about the murders that do not really work. The first was the worst film I’ve seen this year – The Haunting of Sharon Tate – which, well, go and find my review because I don’t want to relive it – but it was awful. Then there is Charlie Says – the latest collaboration between director Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner – who made two excellent films together, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page. With Charlie Says, I will say, that they really do attempt something at least somewhat new with a movie about the Manson Family – in that they try to focus almost exclusively on the three so-called Manson girls who were arrested alongside Manson and Tex Watson for the Tate and LaBianca murders. Specifically, it focuses on Leslie Van Houten – who only participated in the second night of murders. Manson here is a supporting player – but one that looms large.
The film flashes back and forth in time from a few years after the murders – when Van Houten alongside the other two women, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, are already in jail for the murders, but have to kept separate from everyone else for their safety. Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) is an educator who works at the prison, and she is brought in to give them three of them classes – teach them something. She is frustrated because the three women seem to be little more than interchangeable brain washed victims – starting every sentence with “Charlie says…” – even though they haven’t had any contact with him for a few years now, they are still under their control. The movie flashes from these scenes back to the days on Spahn Ranch, and how Manson systematically broke the women down – how he goes from preaching love, to instilling fear, to inciting violence.
The biggest single problem with the movie may be Matt Smith as Manson himself. It really does feel like an actor playing dress-up here more than anything else – as if donning a beard and a wig, and acting weird would be enough to play Manson – it isn’t – and you never really get the sense as to why anyone would follow this guy specifically. When the film concentrates on Van Houten – it is at its best. Hannah Murray (from Game of Thrones) – is quite good in the role here. We see here at the Ranch be kind of the last one to cave completely – the last one to stop questioning what they’re doing, for asking questions in general. And we see here in prison be the first one to start showing those cracks in the belief in Manson – the first one who starts wondering how she ended up doing what she did – and how to move forward with that knowledge of herself. In a way, it’s more comforting to live in the “Charlie says…” world – because then you don’t have to take responsibility for what you’ve done.
I also think the movie really does kind of try to wrap things up in too neat a bow at the end – that it wants to explain that these women were lost, really wanted to be loved by a father figure, and that led them to do terrible things, but when they snap out of it, they will be okay. The film is certainly a sympathetic portrait of the three women – specifically Van Houten (it sticks very closely with the version of events she has told over the years). There is, of course, more complexity to this than the movie feels comfortable showing – perhaps because it would then risk our sympathy for the Manson girls.
There is a more complex film lurking in this story somewhere – but Charlie Says backs away from telling it. Instead, it walks up to the line, and then retreats – and it seems it retreats to give us the kind of scenes we’ve seen before, or scenes that are far too on the nose. The film isn’t the travesty that The Haunting of Sharon Tate was – but it’s not nearly as good as it could have been either.

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