The tastefulness of marking the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders with a slew of films, TV shows and documentaries is highly debatable, but if you’re going to do it, at least Mary Harron is a more rigorous director than most.
The woman who psychoanalysed an amoral generation with her unforgiving adaptation of American Psycho has mostly worked in TV since, but returns to the big screen with Charlie Says, another meditation on the serial killer mind.
Her pet subject has only become more mainstream in recent years, but Harron still brings new insights to the way such monsters work. Charlie Says is enlightening on how Manson casually reprogrammed his followers under the very ‘60s guise of killing their egos, a progressive idea that in practice meant a highly patriarchal sub-culture where women couldn’t carry money and always ate second at mealtimes.
Guinevere Turner’s script is great at teasing out these contradictions, very simply laying all the facts on the table and letting viewers peer through the gaping holes in Manson’s arguments. If anything, Manson is a subdued figure, played by an excellent Matt Smith, whose natural charisma is shaded under a laidback ‘60s mood.
The focus instead is on three of the girls who were victims to his brainwashing, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón). Harron and Turner manage the curious trick of making these three murderers sympathetic by showing how helplessly they were in thrall to Manson’s mad credo.
Nevertheless, this feels like a story not quite hitting its target. It fails to truly explore Manson, who remains the headline act despite Harron and Turner’s more feminist angle, and never quite explains how his followers became so loyal, despite its brilliance at depicting the chilling consequences of such loyalty.
CAST: Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Merritt Wever
DIRECTOR: Mary Harron
WRITER: Guinevere Turner; inspired by a book written by Karlene Faith & Ed Sanders
SYNOPSIS: Three young women were sentenced to death in the infamous Manson murder case, but when the death penalty was lifted, their sentence became life imprisonment. One young graduate student was sent in to teach them – and through her we witness their transformations as they face the reality of their horrific crimes.