Whether or not you’re a true crime buff, almost everyone at some point has heard of Charles Manson and his infamous family. It’s pretty much true crime 101 at this point. Growing up and hearing about Charles Manson, as well as the murders and how the family lived, I became less interested in Charles and more interested in the family. What life had these people lived before being caught under Manson’s spell? How was he able to bend and break these (mostly young women) people?
In Mary Harron’s CHARLIE SAYS, the focus is taken away from Manson and placed more on the women he brainwashed, specifically the famous three, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), with Leslie Van Houten being our main protagonist. The story is told as we flash back and forth between the girls’ time at Spahn Ranch, where the family called home and their current situation-sitting in a cell block away from the general population of the prison. When we first encounter the girls in prison, they are still very much “Charlie’s girls”. They talk about life at the ranch, refer to Manson in adoration and spew out lessons he taught them. As the movie progresses, the girls meet and converse with graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) and with her help, soon the illusion they had in their minds of the great Charles Manson begins to break down and one by one the girls begin to crumble.
Although the film does not center on Charles Manson, he is still very much a looming presence. Matt Smith, who plays Manson in the film, gives us a pretty solid performance in his first few scenes, but as the film goes on, he kind of tapers off and never really gives us a menacing, frightening portrayal. As convincing as Hannah Murray is in presenting us with this naïve broken girl, it’s hard to believe that Smith’s portrayal of Manson is the reason she doesn’t leave the ranch when she gets the chance to.
As much as the film seems to be a study in what went on back at the ranch in terms of Manson’s ability to break down these girls and implant his philosophy, I feel like Herron merely scratched the surface in what could have been an exploration of the mindset of these women and how that mindset was mutated and warped.
In the year of Hollywood Manson Movies, CHARLIE SAYS is a decent installment. It does not focus on the gore involved in the Tate/LaBianca murders and in my opinion, only shows what needs to be shown in terms of the violent and grotesque. It moves the lens away from Manson and points it at the women he exploited and the events leading up to what would be one of the most horrific crimes in Los Angeles. CHARLIE SAYS opens in Los Angeles, Orange County and New York on May 10th.