Harron’s film grapples with an age-old question
Charles Manson did not wield the knives in the 1969 murder spree that ended the Californian hippy dream, so what drove the people who did so on his orders? That is the question posed in “Charlie Says” which premiered in Venice on Sunday.
“Doctor Who” star Matt Smith plays Manson, a wild-eyed petty criminal who sets up a hippy commune where his followers worship him like a messiah, clinging to every word of his incoherent prophecies of Armageddon.
Directed by Canadian Mary Harron, who made the 2000 Christian Bale movie “American Psycho”, “Charlie Says” is set three years after the murders of, among others, Roman Polanski’s actress wife Sharon Tate and her unborn child.
Serving life in jail are three women, still in thrall to Manson and clinging to his promise that they will all live out the coming race war in a hole in the desert from which they will emerge to populate a glorious new world.
Trying to reverse the brainwashing is a prison teacher who is astonished that the bright-eyed young women seem untroubled by their crimes and the fact they will die in jail.
“That’s a perspective that no one has seen and no one has really focused entirely on: their story or their journey about how they ended up there and why they did the things they did,” Harron told Reuters in an interview.
“To me that’s the great mystery. You know Charles Manson was insane, but they were not, so how did he get them to do these things?”
Smith, who portrays Manson with a guitar slung around his neck as he picks out third-rate songs he believes will propel him to global stardom, said: “This isn’t a film about Charles Manson.
“There’s nothing new to find out (about him), but I like the idea that this was a film about what made these girls go to commit these crimes.”
Screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote the “American Psycho” script with Harron, said she wanted to show how it might not be as difficult as most people would think to fall into the thrall of a charismatic huckster, if he was offering the promise of true love and salvation.
“(I tried) to sort of implicate the audience in ‘what would you do?’ … It was all very fun and happy, and drugs at the beginning, and that was great. And then it turned – and at what part of the journey would you walk away?”
“Charlie Says” is competing in the Orizzonti segment of the Venice Film Festival that runs until Sept 8.
“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ‘60s ended abruptly on Aug 9, 1969.” This famous quote, from Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album”, refers to the date of the murders of Sharon Tate and four others by members of Charles Manson’s self-dubbed “Family”.
And in coolly definitive white-text-on-black, it opens Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says”, which tells the story of the sluggish moral reawakening of three of Manson’s murderous acolytes, in the years after the killings, when they were incarcerated in the California Institution for Women.
As scintillating and influential as Didion’s work is, it is not without its detractors – those who find her memoirist’s approach to the journalistic essay form too colored with the personal to earn the sweeping certainty of her generalizations. But “Charlie Says” could use a little of that forceful, opinionated clarity – even at the potential risk of giving offense – because without it, the film Harron delivers is so ambivalent as to be frustratingly gun-shy about truly asserting a point of view, or adding anything meaningful to the already thriving cottage industry of Manson-adjacent storytelling.
Quentin Tarantino’s Manson-inspired “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, for better or worse, is unlikely to be so circumspect, and so “Charlie Says” feels like little more than a preliminary throat clear for that upcoming, much higher profile project.
Leslie is renamed “Lulu” by Charlie and ordered never to speak about her past, because, as Katie explains, “There is no past. We live in the now.” The dialogue in these flashbacks is almost entirely composed of these trite hippie cliches, delivered like they’re the solution to the riddle of the Sphinx.
But the lack of past is evident in Harron’s film overall, which also summons Leslie into existence at the moment she meets Manson, and without prior context, it’s hard to understand what is in these women that makes them subjugate themselves to Manson’s mercurial will.
The issue is the same thorny one that always bedevils the portrayal of the infamous: whether to humanize Manson by cutting him down to size or to attempt to explain the preternatural hold he exerted, thereby running the risk of glorifying him.
“Charlie Says” never makes up its mind if Manson was a devastatingly charismatic pied piper figure, which to some extent would make the women victims of a form of domestic abuse, as per Faith’s theory, or if he was just a pathetic, shaggy-haired wannabe, driven violent with pique at a world that didn’t appreciate his genius.
In the latter case, Leslie, Patricia, Susan et al are just as deluded and culpable as he is, and as little deserving of our pity.
Harron’s film sets out to grapple with an age-old question in the context of a series of grisly crimes that continue to disturb five decades later: Why do ordinary people do extraordinarily evil things?
But the closest “Charlie Says” gets to an answer is the moment that Leslie finally admits that she repeatedly stabbed a complete stranger to death in her own bedroom “for nothing,” and it is not enough. (RTRS)
By Sarah Mills