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The Manson Girls Are Explored In “Charlie Says”

2019 is shaping up to be the year where Charles Manson and his horrific crimes are repeatedly depicted on screen. So far, we’ve seen the atrocious film The Haunting of Sharon Tate turn the Manson Family’s spree into exploitation horror. If you’ll recall, I listed it as one of the worst movies of 2019 so far. Later on this year, Manson will be a figure on the periphery of events in Quentin Tarantino’s hotly anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That has the possibility of being one of the year’s best. Now, this week sees the release of Charlie Says, a contained look at the women in Manson’s circle. It’s an interesting flick, though one that ultimately ends up underwhelming.

The film is half told in flashbacks, filling in gaps as needed. Essentially, the story for Charlie Says centers around the young women who were sentenced to death in the infamous Charles Manson murder case, Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray). When the death penalty was lifted in the state of California, their sentences became life imprisonment instead, leaving the trio essentially to their own devices on what used to be death row. At the behest of the warden Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish), a young graduate student named Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) was sent in to teach them, particularly in the field of Women’s Studies. As she bonds with them, we see them face the reality of their crimes for the first time, as well as flash back to how they came to be under the spell of a charming and mysterious figure named Charlie (Matt Smith). Mary Harron directs a script by her frequent collaborator Guinevere Turner, with supporting players in the cast including Kayli Carter, Chace Crawford, Grace Van Dien, Suki Waterhouse, and more. Cinematography is by Crille Forsberg, while the composer here is Keegan DeWitt.

There’s something missing here. The elements of a compelling tale are present, but neither the prison sequences nor the flashbacks fully engage. Mostly, the issue here is Harron and Turner are not able to make Manson a figure that we learn anything about. To be fair, that may be the intent, but the offshoot of that is we never see how the women could have fallen under his command and ultimately done what they did. It’s frustrating, since Smith does all he can in the role, while the entirety of the female cast is believable. The source just rings hollow, keeping this from being as powerful an experience as intended.

Mary Harron is a talented filmmaker, as well as a director who deserves to work more. She’ll always be known for, along with Turner, being able to find a way to film American Psycho. Her unique perspective elevated a great book that long was deemed unable to be filmed into an all time classic movie. Here, her powers of analysis are not as strong, even if the observation aspect of her directing is well in evidence. As an exercise, it’s missing those extra ingredients to compel you to care about the characters as you should. These women were criminals, yes, but also victims. Harron isn’t fully able to bring that out in Charlie Says in a satisfying manner.

As of yesterday, Charlie Says has come out in limited release, hot off of a quick stopover at the Tribeca Film Festival last week (and a debut last year at the Venice Film Festival). It’s a movie that will be a curiosity for those who follow the Manson case, though for all others, it might fall short of the intended mark. The film isn’t bad, it just isn’t able to nail its thesis, leaving the mystery of a mysterious character frustratingly incomplete. Your mileage may vary, however, so feel free to see for yourself. For yours truly, it never quite gets to the level of being recommendation worthy, alas.

Charlie Says is in theaters now!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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