Manson Family Vacation opens on interview footage of notorious criminal Charles Manson addressing why he thinks he receives so many letters from teenagers each year. “I am those kids,” Manson says. “I never lived in your society.” He then engages in some interpretive dance, and the film takes off on that sentiment.
We see cross-cut events depicting very different lives. One, Conrad, a mangy tramp (Linas Phillips) sticking his thumb out on the highway for anyone will stop, smoking a cigarette when he fails. The other, Nick, a clean cut businessman and family man (Jay Duplass).
The two are brothers. Conrad, having recently sold of his possessions and taken to the road for the sake of writing a book, stops in on Nick’s life. During this one day stay, Conrad takes Nick on a trip through a series of landmarks centering around the Manson murders.
During the course of the tour, Conrad is absolutely giddy about the murders, while Nick looks on in embarrassment. These early interactions between the two are awkwardly humorous. But you can tell that Conrad identifies with Manson a little too much, like all those kids that send Manson letters. He grew up feeling isolated from his father and his brother, and, now that he has reunited with Nick, these feelings have bubbled to the forefront.
What begins as an offbeat mumblecore film descends into mumblegore territory slowly but surely. It never truly becomes mumblegore, it is more like mumblegore-light. But there is a quiet, disturbing intensity that grows out of the final third of the film. It may build too little too late, but there is enough suspense near the end to carry the back end.
Not to mention the heartfelt ending between Duplass and Phillips. The tension diffusing scene wraps the entire proceedings into a neat little bow, even if the road to that point is riddled with bumpiness. Sure, the narrative is tame and single-tracked. But it leads to a place of understanding and compromise that is not common for dark thrillers. Manson Family Vacation is worth a viewing for Duplass and Phillips alone.
Don’t go into Manson Family Vacation expecting a straight thriller or a horror-thriller. Just go in knowing that there is a blend of comedy and some suspense, all wrapped up in a strangely creepy atmosphere. If you go in with the right perspective, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Manson Family Vacation is currently available on Netflix and Amazon Video.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)