Tribeca: Charlie Says (2019)
By Joe BendelMay 16, 2019
In a way, he considered himself the fifth Beatle, but he wasn’t Billy Preston or Stuart Sutcliffe, so it was a problem. According to Charles Manson’s twisted mythology, the Beatles were the four angels who came to Earth to warn humanity of all their tawdry problems and he was the fifth angel who would fix everything. If you wonder how his followers could believe such outlandish claims, remember, it was the 1960s. Crazy was in the air. At least, that is how three former Manson Family members try to explain their involvement to a sympathetic social worker in Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, currently screening in New York, following its North American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
As the film opens, Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel are already safely locked up with little chance of parole, but they are so upbeat about their circumstances, they must be in serious denial. Psych grad student and prison volunteer Karlene Faith would like to understand how their heads work, but she is uneasy regarding what she might find.
Soon, Harron begins her frequent flashbacks to the Manson Family ranch, starting a year before the Hollywood murders. Van Houten is an impressionable new recruit who is completely taken with Mansion, but she still has enough of her original identity and perspective to be alarmed by his regular outbursts of violence. She should know better and she has opportunities to leave, so why does she stay?
The biggest problem with Harron’s film is the lack of a compelling answer to this question. Clearly, Harron is trying to humanize Van Houten, Atkins, and Krenwinkel, but she doubles-down on the image of Manson as a creepy, Mephistophelean psychopath, which is probably wise. Yet, that makes their blind faith in the cult leader utterly baffling. Frustratingly, Charlie Says gives us little insight into the ego-obliterating inner workings of a cult and provides little explanation of how the sweaty, serpentine Manson could hold anyone in thrall.
Obviously, that is a considerable drawback. Since the film really can’t get at the Manson Family on a psychological level, the next best option would be a just-the-facts TV movie approach, but Harron’s hazy, impressionistic aesthetic nixes that too. Crille Forsberg’s sun-drenched, umber-hued cinematography gives it the vibe of a 1970s blue jeans commercial or a summer teen melodrama.
Still, it should be readily stipulated Doctor Who’s Matt Smith is spectacularly creepy as Manson. His sinister, simmering presence is thoroughly unnerving (and again, that creates credibility problems for nearly everyone else). However, Merritt Wever is the film’s clear standout with her totally grounded and believably conflicted portrayal of Faith. The irony of the film is it tries to reclaim the three women’s narratives after years of being overshadowed by Manson, the Satanic alpha male, but Smith and Chace Crawford (as rabidly homicidal Manson follower Tex Watson) make much stronger and more lasting impressions than Hannah Murray, Marianne Rendon, and Sosie Bacon as the brainwashed prisoners.
Up until the flashback to the murders themselves, there is very little actual violence in Charlie Says, but the vibe is consistently unsettling. Many viewers who cannot quote Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, chapter-and-verse, might also be surprised by the virulence of Manson’s racism, which Harron depicts forthrightly. Yet, her intended takeaways remain obscure, because so many of the film’s elements are in conflict with each other. Charlie Says is never dull (due to the provocative subject matter) and Harron manages to skirt most of the potentially offensive pitfalls, but the film never coalesces into a coherent whole. Not recommended, Charlie Says is now screening in New York at the IFC Center, following its screenings as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
*lead image courtesy of IFC Films; CHARLIE SAYS (2019)