Starring Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Sosie Bacon
Directed by Mary Harron
Directed by Mary Harron, Charlie Says is a bit of a mixed bag. Which is too bad, considering it explores the 1969 Manson murders from an angle that hasn’t much been explored yet — the perspective of Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) — the women who took part in the Tate-LaBianca murders in August, 1969.
Isolated from the rest of the prison population, the women have only each other for support and are still very much under the sway of Manson’s teachings. Enter Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a volunteer creative writing instructor at the prison who improvises a kind of women’s studies group for the three of them. Faith works at deprogramming the the women, trying to not only get them to take responsibility for their actions, but to also accept that the man they thought was their savior was actually their abuser.
Told from the point of view of Van Houten, a later arrival to the Family, the film succeeds in the scenes which take place in the prison, and falters in the numerous flashbacks that take place mostly at the Spahn Ranch that feel like they’ve been lifted from a bad TV movie. Harron is clearly most interested in the stuff that takes place in the prison, the drama of the deprogramming and all that, so it leads me to wonder why she didn’t set the whole thing there and just make it a fairly straight drama instead of another re-telling of material that the target audience is likely to be pretty familiar with already.
The film hits all of the major broad strokes of the days leading up to the murders, and sometimes painfully so. It feels mechanical, like someone’s checking off a list of events that need to be covered in order for this to be a proper biopic. Which again, begs the question of why Harron needed so many flashbacks in the first place. The stuff in the prison is compelling enough.
Matt Smith, one of the more recent actors to portray Dr. Who, is totally miscast as Manson. He gets all of the gestures and the voice cadence sort of correct, and yet you never really get lost in his performance. He lacks the charisma to portray a cult leader that held so many in his sway. It’s hard to imagine a performance that gets so much technically correct being so wooden, but here we are.
Hannah Murray is great, though. She’s thoroughly believable as Van Houten. She captures Van Houten’s vulnerability and malleability, making her character’s (sort of) redemption arc seem less forced than it otherwise might have been.
The movie is fine on a technical level, and the cinematography by Crille Forsberg is often breathtakingly eerie with the purposefully underlit, red-saturated indoor scenes at the ranch. Yes, the satanic symbolism might be a touch on the nose, but the scenes look so good that it’s easy to overlook.
The Tate murder is mostly skipped over, since Van Houten didn’t participate in it, and this is essentially her story. Instead, we get an appropriately shocking scene in which Leno and Rosemary LaBianca are ruthlessly murdered. Van Houten has maintained, and there is forensic evidence to support this, that she only stabbed Rosemary LaBianca after she was already dead, pressured by Tex Watson into participating after he reminded her that Manson had ordered everyone to take part in the killings. Reluctant as she might have been, Van Houten stabbed LaBianca twelve times. It’s appropriately hard to watch a knife enter and exit an innocent human being with such rage and coldness, no matter how brainwashed and misguided the murderer might have been.
Charlie Says is never boring, even at nearly two hours. It’s just not very compelling outside of the prison scenes and the LaBianca murders. The the ensemble cast’s performances aren’t great and Matt Smith’s goofy, cartoonish portrayal of Manson is very distracting. If you’re into all things Manson, you should probably skip this one when it’s released in theaters later this month. If you see it at all, this is definitely going to be best as a rental.