Charlie says “let go of what you hate about yourself”, Charlie says “kill your ego”, and Charlie gently strips his followers naked to appreciate their bodies, “freeing” them in a gross display of exploitation masked as women’s liberation. This thinly veiled guise of counterculture liberalism and sexual freedom, under which infamous cult leader and failed rock star Charles Manson operated, seems to summarise the 60s in its entirety. Perhaps this warped envisioning of the mindset that captured a generation is why many claim that the ‘swinging sixties’ ended the ninth of August 1969, after the Manson family murdered seven people – including actress Sharon Tate – over the course of two fateful nights.
The mantra of “Charlie says” is consistently repeated by the Manson family women, a tongue-in-cheek riff on the children’s game ‘Simon Says.’ His word is gospel, and the women must follow his actions. And it is the women, not Manson himself, that are the focus of director Mary Harron’s attempt to understand the mindset of these ordinary, all-American girls gone wrong.
Harron places her focus on Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), the last of the central three to join Manson’s family. We catch up with Van Houten and other Manson girls Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) after the Tate LaBianca murders. As they sit in three adjoining prison cells, their denim pinafore and brown cardigan prison garb lends its hand to a more obvious cult-like appearance than ever before. Having just recently been acquitted from death row at the California Institute for Women, warden Virginia Carlson (Annabeth Gish) opts for a radical approach to the women’s’ rehabilitation. She enlists the help of graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) to counsel Manson women and break down the cloud of abuse and confusion that surrounds their interpretation of the events that led them to commit the murders. The film then jumps back and forth between Karlene’s counselling sessions and the actual events that took place on the Manson ranch.
Taking on the role of Charlie is Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, in a wholly surprising but evidently perfect casting choice. He blends the role with such charisma and eventual mania that its impossible to not be drawn in in a similar fashion that the women experienced. His increasing violent tendencies and raving rants about an imminent race war – spurred on by The Beatles White Album song ‘Helter Skelter’ – paint a clear picture of a man unhinged, a certified lunatic. The complete contrast from the early days of the Ranch, even noted by the girls themselves when they remember a time of “The Family B.C. The family before the crimes, when it was all about love,” make it very hard to comprehend how the Manson Family weren’t deterred, even when given multiple chances to leave.
Harron tries to grapple with the idea of the women as victims, not perpetrators. Karlene wants to give them back the autonomy that was stripped from them while under Manson’s thumb and free them from his mind games and scripture. However, it often feels like only Van Houten shows the slightest inkling that Manson’s behaviour is wrong, but jovially carries on by his side anyway. The sentiment is there and Harron and scriptwriter Guinevere Turner carry a clear compassion for the women and the concocted media frenzy that surrounded them, their indoctrination to Charles Manson’s belief system is clear and repetitive, all uttered through a drug fuelled haze of LSD. The film just seems to lack a precise focus in the story of Leslie Van Houten. During the earlier scenes at the ranch, the film idly flits around various family members to different degrees of interest, the most interesting being Patricia Krenwinkel whose almost vacant smile seems to hide a multitude of fear and anxiety, but at the same time complete devotion to her glorious God-like father figure.
Charlie Says perfectly misleads its audience into its initial utopian counterculture lifestyle, knowing its audience also knows the outcome of its story. The cultural weight of the Manson Family Murders and their iconography will always be a tough, almost unexplainable mindset to recreate and explain from both the women and Manson himself, but Harron is adept at turning the tables to present a fresh and feminist perspective. She portrays the Manson women as victims of culture and circumstance, showing there is much more to them than being mindless killers, that their autonomy and voice was stolen from them not only by the cult leader controlling them, but also the media cult depicting them to the masses.
Charlie Says is out on Digital and DVD on July 29th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here