Mary Harron’s Charlie Says is a portrait of the terrifying impact and influence Charles Manson had on his cult, giving us a window into three of the women.
Mary Harron’s movie Charlie Says is created for the audience to understand the impact the American criminal cult leader Charles Manson had on his self-engineered family. It’s a portrait as such, one that I almost found unbelievable to witness, of his terrifying ways of leading a pack of people with unparalleled loyalty for some veiled greater good. Harron’s movie is layered with too many slices of exposition and straightforward, dull flashbacks, but the thought process behind the direction is correct for the most part.
My review of Charlie Says arrives conveniently soon after my verdict of the troubling Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which indulged itself in inadvertently admiring the killer, rather than focusing on the premise, which was the woman that was severely impacted by the events surrounding Ted Bundy. We often debate via various Twitter threads whether only a female director should direct female-centric films. I feel more diverse on this subject rather than being precisely selective on who should direct, but if we were to imagine two debating teams on this subject, Charlie Says would be a winning point for the side that argues for women-for-women only films.
Charlie Says manages to show the complicity of the abused women while leaving a fleeting moment of a single facial expression, or a moment where the character has that one second of clarity where it can be sensed that they understand that their experiences are wrong. Charles Manson was a monster, but his cult believed him to be a genius, and the film does not attempt to offer any moment where you’d doubt otherwise. The film is not a celebration of horrifying history like the movie I mentioned before. It’s an insight into the three women who went full circle with their belief system centring around one man.
Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) are the leading characters in Charlie Says. As someone who has not been exposed to the story, I found it dumbfounding how disillusioned these cult members were. The film spends a good portion of screen time with the three in prison, and their lack of grasp of reality is astoundingly unimaginable. Their actions, body language and reaction to their prison environment are childlike; relaxed, almost like they did not understand where they were.
Charlie Says relies on the flashbacks to tell a story, which is always spurred on by a moment of thought or sentence from their present day in prison. The flashbacks are okay, but it’s ridiculously thick in exposition, failing to allow the story to breathe. The less explained moments were from Charles Manson himself, played convincingly by Matt Smith, but his intentions were flagrantly obvious, so it required the least discussion from the characters. Whereas with Leslie, Patricia and Susan, the movie relies on sounding out their actions rather than giving the movie space for the audience to allow their conclusions.
As a final point, Charlie Says is elevated mostly by strong performances by the leading actresses, who appear keen and dedicated to telling the story of these three women — coupled with the fact that the writing recognises that their choices are wrong, but on the flipside, their direction in life was a by-product of male abuse. Charlie Says is nowhere near a brilliant biographical demonstration, but its heart and soul is in the right place, and one Mary Harron can be proud of.
Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.