As Charles Manson well understood, the flipside of the revolutionary liberation movements of the Sixties is authoritarian control; the obverse of communism, fascism. Or, as Orwell phrased it so succinctly some two decades prior, freedom is slavery.
The two-faced duality of this charismatic psychopath is at the heart of Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, a slow-burning, rewarding portrayal of Manson’s destructive grip on the hearts, minds and loins of his vulnerable acolytes. Adapted from Ed Sanders’ The Family, one of the essential early exposés of life on the ringleader’s ranch, Charlie Says offers a Manson rich in complexity.
Played by Matt Smith as a guitar-strumming longhair in hippie togs, Manson presents initially as a proto-New Age guru, spreading a Back-to-the-Earth juju of gleaning, veganism and living off the grid in an eternal present. He doesn’t need to say Be Here Now; he just is, and if mind-altering substances help to vanquish the past and forestall the future, so be it. From the vantage of hindsight, Manson is Nathan Leopold by way of Timothy Leary by way of Tony Robbins, selling enlightenment and self-love packaged in a paranoid cult of white supremacy.
Little of this will be revelatory to Manson scholars, who have long understood the roots of his duplicity. But as a survey of the human capacity for manipulation and brainwashing, Charlie Says resonates in a 21st-century climate awash in conspiracy, misinformation and cults of personality. It feels like a signature project for Harron and her longtime collaborator, screenwriter Guinevere Turner, whose infrequent but consistent oeuvre — I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page — has dealt almost exclusively with feminists, killers or both.
Charlie Says adopts a twin narrative structure, roughly beginning in a California correctional facility, where three of Manson’s devotees — Leslie Van Houton (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) — are held in an isolated limbo following the state’s invalidation of capital punishment. Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a graduate student and women’s-liberation advocate, attempts to delve beyond their murder convictions and help the troubled girls regain their pre-Manson identities.
It has been three years since the murders, but Karlene encounters three women still very much in throng to their de facto “daddy.” Smiling, flirting with their prison guard, commiserating through the walls of their cells, and still “hearing” orders from their dear leader, they are blissfully unaware of a permanent future behind bars — believing that one day they will literally sprout wings and transform into elves.
As the ladies share their delusions with Karlene’s sympathetic ears, Charlie Says flashes back to the B.C. — “before the crimes” — days of the Manson Family, the cold industrial hues of the prison transitioning into the bordello-red shades of the Manson commune. We discover Manson’s world through Leslie, a teenage runaway and his newest initiate.
Everywhere around Leslie, there are girls her own age, attractive boys — including an actual Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson (James Trevana-Brown) — music, sex, psychedelic drugs and the exhilaration of living outside of society’s strictures. Even when Manson humiliates his converts, as when he forces one girl to strip in front of everyone around a campfire, it’s for purposes that are purportedly therapeutic, not prurient. The cult’s appeal is easy to grasp.
As the months drag on, this initial euphoria congeals into a slow rot of hypocrisy, misogyny and domestic violence from an increasingly unhinged leader. As Leslie, whom Charlie has christened Lulu, continues to entrench herself in her master’s life and ideology, Harron and Turner litter her delusion with seeds of doubt — momentary breaks in which she questions his inconsistencies, and in which her absolute devotion wavers. In a pivotal scene, an outsider who enjoyed a one-night stand with Leslie returns on his motorcycle like a fairy-tale prince, offering her escape from Manson’s iron grip and death stare, no strings attached. She says no, but her eyes assert the opposite — one of many exquisite bits of acting from Murray.
It’s heartbreaking to watch the full spectrum of Leslie’s descent from innocent naïf to murderer, but whether you believe in redemption for Manson’s foot soldiers in the helter-skelter of his imagined race war is entirely up to individual viewers. Harron builds a case but leaves the retrial verdict to us.
What’s most unsettling about Charlie Says is that Manson comes off as less an outlier — a flaw in society’s DNA — than he would have had the film been made in 2000, or 1985, or even in 2010. From today’s jaundiced eye, in this telling of Manson’s inevitable, frenzied diatribe espousing the dark subtext of the Beatles’ White Album, he doesn’t sound like a manic street preacher ranting to an audience of none. He sounds like the newest host on Infowars.
CHARLIE SAYS. Director: Mary Harron; Cast: Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Suki Waterhouse, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish; Distributor: IFC; Opens: Friday, May 10 at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, and Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables