While it is unfair to compare Mary Harron’s latest film, Charlie Says, to Quentin Tarantino’s latest—and I will try to keep this brief—my exposure to both films came within a close window, making it hard to avoid. But I do think that one illuminates the other, as opposed to one dwarfing the other.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood makes it a point to limit Charlie Manson’s voice and screentime, choosing instead to focus on his acolytes. This fits his movie well (albeit the overabundance of the Manson narrative was a detracting feature for me). In Charlie Says, we also focus on the acolytes; three members of the Manson Family, specifically. The story of the Manson murders is framed by the three women (Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon) in prison being taught by Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver), who also aims to reverse Charlie’s brainwashing.
In Harron’s film, though, Manson the character plays a large role (he is portrayed by Matt Smith). While this could easily slip into a hacky and caricaturish look at a horrifying real-life murder, inserting Manson as an instigator of a woman’s complicated psychological state makes the approach slightly more delicate. We still witness murder, but it isn’t as messy and exploitative as, say, The Haunting of Sharon Tate (if you think I’m referencing this movie too much in recent reviews, just wait until my end of the year worst list).
Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner’s narrative framing may focus too much on the Spahn Movie Ranch leading up to the murders—the prison is where the most compelling character work is done—but they are pointedly creating a story about identity, not one solely setting out to exploit the true crime trend. As in many cults, Manson’s acolytes abandon their identities in order to do his bidding, and the narrative of Charlie Says aims to, to the extent to which it is able, give those identities back.
Perhaps, on its face, this is controversial, as these people committed and were found guilty of violent crimes—the film directly addresses this complication in a nuanced way—but the psychological intricacies that Turner probes at makes for a valuable interpretation, one that challenges notions of culpability, agency, and victimization.
The film’s linear depiction of Leslie Van Houton’s (Murray) time on the ranch gets less engaging as it goes along, but every once in a while there are glimpses of intriguing tension, as when a biker enters the fray and offers her a way out. Again, it is the time spent in prison that propels the film, and I think the film would have benefited from more of it.
But Charlie Says is an engrossing look at psyches which are difficult for people on the outside to understand. The film may be a thriller, and nearly a horror film in its climax, but the time spent with the women makes for a psychological drama that is fascinating.
Charlie Says: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)