Everyone always focused on Charlie, the cult leader, the “Helter Skelter” Svengali, the failed musician who had to settle for becoming one of history’s most famous modern representations of human evil. People wrote about him, or they wrote about “the family” as a single unit — the spokes that emanated out from his hub of batshit craziness. Sure, names like Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme became well-known among folks who viewed serial killers as true-crime celebrities. But whenever most folks talked about the followers that did his bidding, it was always through the lens of the charismatic hippie at the curdled center of it all. Especially the female followers. Look at his game, girl(s).
This is what Charlie Says wants to correct. Yes, it’s a Manson movie, with a bona fide time lord and Royal Family prince playing the part (hello there, Matt Smith!) — but do not let the title fool you. It’s much more interested in the perspective of the people he was saying things to, notably three women: Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), Patricia Krewinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray). One narrative timeline follows them as they romp around Spahn Ranch, taking in Manson’s rants about race wars, engaging in the house ideology of free love and group sex, cooking and cleaning and sewing and murdering for him. (And if you happen to notice that some of the expectations they’re saddled with and abuses they suffer resemble the same thing women in the straight world deal with, so much the better.) The other takes place in a California penitentiary, where they reside in cells next to each other, bright-eyed and brainwashed, regurgitating Charlie-isms until a kindly social worker (Merrit Wever) starts them on the path to rehabilitation.
Van Houten, in fact, is the Virgil of the story, with director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner making her the tour guide through which we enter this “groovy” circle of hell. She’s the one who shows up at the ranch with one of the guys who’s already bought into Manson’s rap, taking in the hugs and beatific smiles and the strummed songs of the shaggy-haired dude everyone flocks around. “Be my mirror,” he says upon meeting Leslie, prodding her into copying his facial expressions. What Charlie really wants, however, is a slave and, in his words, “a good soldier.” Obedience, or at least acquiescence, is the law of the land. When she’s told to go forage through garbage dumps with Squeaky (Private Life‘s Kayli Carter) and the gang, she goes along. When she questions him, he humiliates her in front of everybody. When new recruits come in, she helps groom them for her personal Jesus. By the time Manson is berating Krewinkel for being too “messy” with Tate’s killing, Van Houten is begging to go with them to that evening’s massacre.
She’s the one who stabs Rosemary LaBianca over a dozen times, and Harron wisely doesn’t film the act itself; instead, the camera stays on Van Houten’s blood-splattered face as she registers a mixture of frenzied rage and an existential exhaustion with each plunge. This is why you hire an actor like Murray — a.k.a. Cassie from God Help the Girl for discerning fans of oddball Scottish indie-rock musicals, and Gilly on Game of Thrones for everyone else — who lets you see each downsliding step of this young woman’s moral descent. It’s a gradual breaking down of defenses preceded by an exhilaration of discovering something new and akin to a hip form of paternal love. And though the various sequences involving the trio making steps toward healing with their prison mentor fall curiously flat nine times out of 10, Murray still gives you a ringside seat to Van Houten’s evolution from platitude-spouting zombie to someone coming to terms with what she did.
You can’t blame the actors for these prison scenes feeling a little stilted — especially Wever, who’s a national treasure. They just don’t quite feel like they ever click with the Mansonploitation sequences they are supposed to be counterparts to, or the film as a whole. (Even the Spahn Ranch exchanges occasionally feel like the actors are “playing” a production of the Manson family’s story rather than telling it. And the less said about the dream “happy” ending that one protagonist is gifted with, the better.) And yet it’s in one of those cellblock scenes that Harron and Turner place their overarching statement of purpose. “I just wanna give them back themselves,” Wever’s character says to a colleague, at which point you understand exactly what they’re going for if you hadn’t gleaned it already. Harron’s best-known movie may involve a cold-blooded killer (American Psycho), but her best work — I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page, the six-part Netflix series Alias Grace — is about giving voices to women who sometimes don’t get heard, or have it drowned out by the din around them. If nothing else, Charlie Says puts Van Houten, and to a lesser extent her sisters in crime, in the center of their own story. Look at her game, girl.