“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” – Joan Didion, The White Album
Charlie Says opens with Didion’s quote. This true crime thriller is a retelling of the events that led to August 9, 1969, the day three women and one man brutally killed five people, under the orders of Charles Manson. The quote really stuck out to me, because it says a lot about the impact that the Manson murders had on American culture. That event dealt a severe blow to the popular 60s hope of a peace-loving future. Looking back, it even seems to have heralded a period of increasing violence in the U.S.
A few months before the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, I watched Charlie Says at the Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Mary Harron, writer and director of American Psycho, I found it to be a rather visceral experience. We follow the stories of three of Manson’s “girls” – Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon, Imposters), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, 13 Reasons Why), and Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones) – as they join his seemingly counter-cultural, peaceful, and open-minded commune in southern California. There, they “live in the moment,” relaxing, getting stoned, singing, having sex. Charlie Manson (Matt Smith, The Crown, Doctor Who) is their leader. His message is not all that different from the hippie wisdom popular at the time: get rid of the uptight, domineering conservatism of your parents, and embrace an uninhibited love of life, love of others, and love of your body.
It sounds all fine and good, but of course the catch is that everything Charlie says goes. Charlie is the source and dictator of their freedom. So when he is rejected, disrespected, or demeaned, the peaceful world he created quickly becomes ugly and violent.
In the movie, scenes of the girls’ experience with Charlie before the murders are juxtaposed with sequences of the girls in prison three years later, when they start taking a college class with graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie). Karlene tries to understand the girls’ attachment and devotion to Manson, hoping to help them loosen those bonds.
What Charlie Says does well is show the slow disintegration of Charlie’s commune from a peaceful (albeit eerie) world of family and good times, to a toxic, sinister cult of violence. He affirms the girls, encourages them, loves on them, laughs with them. Sometimes I could even see why they found him to be a positive presence. But I was also, little by little, introduced to the deeply troubled and violent egomaniac. Smith’s performance as Charlie is chilling and powerful.
Witnessing the Manson family in this thriller gets pretty intense. I knew full well that director Mary Harron can raise hairs and widen eyes, and she did so for me throughout Charlie Says. She orchestrated an unsettling depiction of what it was like to be a part of Manson’s world. I felt uneasy many times while watching, ranging from “Yikes,” to “Oh my god, I wish I could unsee that!”
What I didn’t like as much were the prison sequences. There seemed to be a naive assumption operating in the film that what these women needed was someone educated and woke to come explain life to them. Every time the girls recite part of the strange idolatry Charlie instilled in them, Karlene basically responds by telling them outright, “That’s not the way life is. You’ve been lied to.” When, for example, Karlene encounters some of the racist ideas Charlie taught the girls, she brings in a Black professor to tell them they’re racist and wrong.
Instead of digging deeper into the complexity of how people are indoctrinated and brainwashed in cults, the movie reduces this complexity to the girls’ mere ignorance, so that Karlene just negates their cultish ideas and promotes common sense and feminism. I thought that this treatment cheapened the deep exploration that the film set out on.
That said, I did not regret watching Charlie Says. It is definitely worthwhile viewing for anyone interested in the subject. It features great performances, vivid, biting sequences, and raw detail.