2019 | rated R | starring Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever, Chace Crawford | directed by Mary Harron | 1 hr 50 mins |
Earlier in 2019, Quentin Tarantino unleashed his sprawling, masterful woolly mammoth of a film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in a rare win for originality. The movie promised a mix of fiction colliding with real world Manson Family terror and ended up being more of a kaleidoscope of 1969 movie and TV-making with a murderous hippie topper. While Tarantino has made it abundantly clear he has no sympathy for the Manson murderers, Mary Harron’s Charlie Says offers a much more sympathetic, and straightforward, look at the ladies of Spahn Ranch.
Disney and Hollywood can make all of the female empowerment movies they want, but it still isn’t going to make up for the fact that Mary Harron has directed exactly zero high profile movies (3 low profile ones) since her modern classic American Psycho, a movie that gets more relevant and popular by the year. Charlie Says reteams Harron with Psycho and The Notorious Betty Paige writer Guinevere Turner who combines two books to tell the story of 3 of Charlie Manson’s followers sitting side-by-side in prison cells and the therapist educator (Merritt Wever) who tries to break through their brainwashing. Matt Smith in full hair and beard appears as Charlie Manson in flashbacks.
Both, for the sake of taste and to keep the portrayal of the girls as brainwashed victims and not cold blooded killers, the movie skims over their murders (and the murder of Sharon Tate) as quickly as possible. Pulling the rubbernecker elements out of it, it becomes clear why Tarantino’s film is structured the way it is, and has to be structured that way. The true story here just isn’t a very interesting or cinematic one. Most of our time at the Manson Ranch is spent with the girls hanging out, getting high, having sex, singing and watching Manson play guitar. He controls them, yes, at one point saying no guests can come in without his knowledge. He knife-trains them to fight in the upcoming race war and asks naïve Lulu (Hannah Murray, our audience surrogate into this world) if she wants to jump off a cliff to leave him; but we don’t get a sense of how he’s brainwashing them. Not that Harron and Turner need to give every movie the American Psycho treatment, but a version of this with a more satirical bent, that played into how Manson was using the free-love movement of the 60s to get away with seducing these girls with weed and guitar ballads the same way Patrick Bateman used 80s superficiality to get his way might have been interesting.
That’s also probably not a movie that would get financed. Harron dared to make a great movie back in 2000 and has been paying the Hollywood penance ever since, scraping cash together to get something even as by-the-numbers as this out. Psycho is so precisely shot and tightly scripted by Turner, appropriately Charlie Says is a looser movie for a loser time period, but the film ultimately suffers from BioPic syndrome, moving slavishly through as many real life story points as it can without focusing on a specific part of the story that will make this telling fresh. The Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour is my favorite recent example of this. It isn’t about the life of Churchill as much as it tells us about him through exploring in great detail a singular pivotal incident. Charlie Says recounts the events, and certainly wants us to feel the hesitation and regret of these girls, but doesn’t infuse the task with emotion or character in the process. It’s not bad, it’s just blah and more blah. There aren’t very many movies like American Psycho, but there are a lot like Charlie Says.