Charlie Says is the newest film directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho). The movie tells the story of three of the young women who were brainwashed into becoming cold-blooded killers by Charles Manson. It has played at festivals including the 2018 Venice Film Festival and the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Manson murders are one of the most interesting and infamous true-crime stories of all time, hence why there are at least three movies coming out centering around them this year. This film tells an interesting angle on the story, exploring the psychology of three of the murderers. We don’t frequently hear this side of the story, so it is intriguing to see how it plays out from their perspective.
The movie also offers a uniquely feminist angle on the proceedings. The filmmakers attempt to portray the perpetrators of the crimes also as victims because of the way in which they were manipulated by Manson, and for the most part, they are successful in so doing. However, this could (and likely will) cause the film to be met with controversy because these people who committed such a heinous crime are being humanized.
The character development in the movie is very strong. The character Karlene Faith serves as the audience’s perspective on the film as the outsider who is looking in on the situation. She is immediately sympathetic because of her altruistic heart to help heal these broken people. The three leads — Leslie Van Houten, Mary Brunner, and Susan Atkins — are presented in a way that is compelling, but allows the audience to make the final decision on them.
The pacing of the movie is also quite effective. Since many of us will already be familiar with the murders, this film does not linger on that moment or even build to that moment. Instead, it focuses on the aftermath and psychological effects of the crimes on those who perpetrated them and the conditions that caused them to make their decision. In this way, we are met with a fascinating character study rather than a mystery or thriller, which was an interesting choice.
All of the actors do an excellent job in their roles. Hannah Murray, who plays Van Houten (arguably the lead) is great. She is able to really sell the victim parts of the character because of the level of emotional nuance she adds to the role. Suki Waterhouse and Marianne Rendón complement her well but are slightly underused. Matt Smith plays the infamous Manson, and he does a great job of capturing the charisma of the character and the gradual descent into madness.
On a technical level, the movie was mostly impressive. The only real weak link was the score, although it isn’t bad — just excessive at times. The cinematography is very good, doing a great job of transporting you back into the time period. The production design is also of note, especially the Manson Family Ranch, which is built into a world of its own.
Overall, Charlie Says was a really solid film. Although it is possible that it will rub some people the wrong way, that is because it is a challenging and thought-provoking movie that offers a unique and fascinating perspective on history.
Charlie Says hits theaters on May 10 and VOD on May 17.