Charlie Says

Year: 2019
Production Co: Epic Level Entertainment
Director: Mary Harron
Writer: Guinevere Turner/Karlene Faith/Ed Sanders
Cast: Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendén, Merrit Weaver, Matt Smith, Chace Crawford

With Avengers: Endgame tearing up every box office record there is at the moment, an email has turned up in many film journalist's inboxes recently advertising a shlocky B movie action flick called Avengement, certain to raise many a wry smile. In an industry where any recognition is currency, no producer should consider him or herself above a name that's so gimmicky it's almost a joke.

In the same way, with Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the near horizon, a cottage industry of Manson movies has sprung up – first The Haunting of Sharon Tate and now this, the story of some of the Manson women and where they ended up. All were condemned to death for the murders of Tate, her friends, supermarket mogul Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, but capital punishment was abolished in California soon after, so Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins' sentences were commuted to life.

Played respectively by Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendén, the three women share adjacent cells – befriending the burly guard, whispering soothing words through the bars to each other when one of them has a nightmare, seeming a million miles away from the deranged murderers Manson is supposed to have groomed and unleashed.

That's how it appears to Karlene Faith (Merrit Weaver of The Walking Dead), the anthropologist and human rights activist given access to the three women in a series of workshops where she tries to get inside their heads. Played with steely, quiet, dignified determination by the brilliant Weaver, Faith knows she's dealing with three young women who are just like any other apart from their seeming inability to fully accept they did anything wrong in butchering several people over two unforgettable 1969 nights.

The framing device of Faith interviewing the three Manson women is our way into the story of how so many people ended up in such thrall to a madman, and the story concentrates most on newest recruit Leslie, who learns the ways of the Manson commune lifestyle at Spahn Ranch along with the audience.

As Manson, former Dr Who Matt Smith is as transcendent as the character is nuanced. Knowing what we do know, you imagine he's a kind of 1960s California hippie Hitler, ruling over a terrified populace with an iron fist. But the soft-spoken Smith teases out the monster slowly. When he orders one of the female family members to strip naked by the bonfire one night in front of everyone the air of sexual threat is palpable. Instead, he has everyone embrace her and tell how her beautiful she is in her imperfections.

You fear the worst kind of abuse when he sets about having sex with the naive young van Houten – because you're waiting for the sexual predator who insists on sleeping with all the female acolytes – but when she freezes up Manson couldn't be more attentive and sensitive, assuring her they'll wait until she's ready if she'd rather.

But the monster slowly emerges nevertheless. In his excitement at the prospect of finally becoming a rock star when producer Terry Melcher agrees to come to Spahn Ranch and see him play (Tate and her friends lived in the house Melcher had recently vacated – it's debated to this day whether Manson didn't realise and was targeting Melcher as revenge), he issues ridiculous orders to get a deerskin outfit in time for the performance, telling the various Family women to dance around topless or naked for Melcher to enhance the performance.

Alone in a dark corner later on after he's been rejected, Manson throws a fit, smashing his guitar in rage even though he's told everyone the meeting went well. He doesn't tolerate any dissent or challenge to his authority among the Family, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford) jumping ship in disillusionment at one point – Watson ultimately came back to the Family and was the ringleader at the Tate killings.

We see van Houten fall further under the spell of a group of people who represent everything a 60s kid would aspire to – free love, music, drugs and the wholesale rejection of their establishment parents. It's not nearly as big a leap as you imagine when she goes from being a good suburban kid to a screaming, blood-slicked psychopath who stabbed Rosemary LaBianca's already-dead body over 40 times.

The chronology and storytelling device of the prison interviews stop Charlie Says being a straight biopic of the events, but they don't add a real lot to the proceedings other than the assertion that the Manson women were just kids in thrall to a dangerous egotist rather than subhuman demons.

But Weaver elevates it just like Smith does his scenes of the Family commune and killings. It works better as a document that portrays the details that led to the Manson murders than a deep dive into criminal psychology, but it's great to see someone give Mary Harron (American Psycho) a movie again.

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