By Madeline Whittle in the May-June 2019 Issue
The new film from Mary Harron takes as its focus the psychology of the young women who comprised the bulk of the Manson Family’s adherents. Adapted from the memoir of Karlene Faith, an anthropologist who spent time as a graduate student working with three women imprisoned after participating in the Manson murders, Charlie Says places its characters’ past and present in dialogue. Alternating between time periods, the movie depicts both the sequence of events that culminated in the infamous murders and their aftermath, always foregrounding the women’s lived experience in all its complexity and ambivalence.
The title Charlie Says alludes to the film’s narrative posture: Faith is an audience proxy, listening along with us to the post-conviction testimonies of the three women during prison visits as they are coaxed into untangling how their perceptions were subsumed within one charismatic man’s account of reality. By opting to cast Charles Manson as refracted through the women with whom he surrounded himself, the director of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho deepens a career-spanning inquiry into her signature fascinations, at the intersection of gender, power, violence, and delusion. Here, the result is a rich and disturbing portrait that captures Manson’s sinister power and demonstrates its effects. We’re simultaneously presented with an empathetic account of an insidious psychological mechanism, showing how these young women were groomed and indoctrinated and programmed to kill, and a measured interpretation of the cult’s leader: a narcissist with a fragile ego who compensated for his failures by building up a following for a violently racist and crudely misogynist ideology of which he was the center.
The subject of the real-life Faith’s book was Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray)—the film enacts a scene in which she is anointed with that nickname by Manson himself in a perversely offhand baptism. In the sensitive screenplay by longtime Harron collaborator Guinevere Turner, Van Houten’s story is the central narrative thread, weaving back and forth across time, beginning with the moment she arrives on the ranch (“before the crimes, when everything was about love”). It ends as she stares down lifelong incarceration, her sentence looming before her in place of autonomous adulthood, and starts to grasp the full truth of her complicity, and her victimization. Van Houten’s retrospective self-discovery unfolds alongside those of two fellow prisoners and former Manson Family members (portrayed by Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón), each of whom processes the horror of this dawning private reckoning in a different way.
Much of the strength of Charlie Says as a work of intricately empathetic moral testimony is due to its cast. Matt Smith’s Manson is appropriately captivating, smooth and strange and seductive, fluently vacillating across different registers: warmth, brooding, vitriol, and ultimately explosive violence. As a kind of counterbalance to Manson’s manic gravitational pull, Merritt Wever gives a careful, lived-in, emotionally precise turn as Faith, generously anchoring the framing prison narrative in the young anthropologist’s compassionately inquisitive perspective.
Harron’s film is at its most thoughtful, and its most useful, in moments where it presents itself as an exploration of young women in thrall to a charismatic, deeply egotistical leader who thrives on their willing submission. An insistently, desperately outsized personality, Manson persuades his followers that “death of the ego” is necessary for enlightenment, but as Charlie Says demonstrates, this is merely a way of demanding that his followers sacrifice their agency to him. How are such women to reclaim their sense of themselves in the aftermath of breaking free from him, and to account for the moral consequences of their own actions while under his sway?
The stark binary that undergirds the film’s visual logic—contrasting rosy infusions of light on the sun-soaked ranch with the hard, sterile grays of the prison cell—serves a moral purpose as well as an aesthetic one. Harron’s cool artistry evokes the intoxication that can result from a heady synthesis of environment, personality, and historical circumstance, all of which carries a heavy burden of menace, and braces this vision against the literally sobering—alienating, disorienting, and frequently terrifying—experience of being removed from those circumstances. The jarring fact of this psychic whiplash must be confronted head-on, the film asserts, in order to arrive at an objective understanding of truth, justice, and one’s own self.
Madeline Whittle is the Programming Assistant at Film at Lincoln Center, and a freelance translator. Her film writing has appeared in Film Comment and The Brooklyn Rail.