Starring: Merritt Wever, Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Chace Crawford, Suki Waterhouse, Kayli Carter, Annabeth Gish
Directed by: Mary Harron
Written by: Guinevere Turner
“Every girl should have a daddy like Charlie.”
Every crime has victims, but what if there were more victims? Ones we least expect? The Manson murders are one of the most notorious in true crime history. Three women and one man brutally murdered many people by the word of cult leader Charles Manson. However, the story doesn’t stop there. Charlie Says explores the lives of the three women as they sit in prison. They become the subjects of a woman who wants to know more about their lives and who they were before Charles Manson turned their lives upside down. It sparks an interesting conversation. Are these women just murderers or are they victims too?
Charlie Says tells the story of The Manson Girls, Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Leslie Van Houston (Hannah Murray). Told mainly from the viewpoint of Leslie, this film dives into Leslie’s memories as she is first introduced to Charlie (Matt Smith) to when she helped commit the crimes. Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a graduate student who worked in the women’s prison, is assigned to talk to the women and get their sides of the story and hope to understand what got them into this mess.
Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner have worked together on numerous movies before (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page). When they work together, it feels like you learn something that you didn’t expect to learn. You start to see things differently, and it makes you shudder at the thoughts in your head. It’s no surprise that Charlie Says would be this incredible feminist film with so much to say about abuse, manipulation, and remorse.
There’s nothing that I love more than non-linear stories. If you can do a story in a non-linear way that plays on memories, recollections, and thoughts but weaves it in a way that makes sense, I am completely and utterly there with you. Charlie Says does this with such grace, and make it so much more of an enjoyable watch because of it. It focuses on the woman’s memories of their time with Charlie and their reality in the now in the aftermath of the horrible act. The film chops it up, giving you the past and present, with an uncertain future. It never feels like you’re just placed in these moments. They feel like organic memories, however good or bad. You remember with these women, and you’re experiencing it with them to understand yourself.
Mary Harron’s style of filmmaking with Turner’s script is something of a marvel in Charlie Says cause they GET it. Charlie Says gives these women back their narrative but never lets them forget what they’ve done. However, you can’t help but feel for them. They are victims in this too, whether we like to know that or not.
That’s another fascinating thing. The women do have their day in this film. When leaving the theater, I overheard a couple of complaints that Charles Manson was hardly in this picture. For which I say, GOOD. Charles Manson in this film is a backdrop. He’s just a man who sets things in motion. The women are the ones to focus on.
When Harron and Turner want to talk about Charlie, they tell the story of a spiteful and struggling musician. One who didn’t get his big break and got pissed off and killed people cause of it. Charlie wanted people to let go off their egos and bend to HIS will, but he’s the one with the biggest and most ball-busting ego of them all. Charlie Says is not only a magnificent piece of filmmaking for the non-linear storyline that dives into memories. It’s also an incredible character piece that dives into every person as an individual.
“Charlie Says everyone has to do something.”
Hannah Murray as Leslie Van Houston was so brilliant. Murray being the focal point is so interesting because when you see her, you don’t think of her as this big star. However, in this film, she makes you feel for her. It’s honestly great to see Murray come from the days of Skins to an incredible career being in Game of Thrones and now this. As Van Houston, she’s empathetic and haunted, soft but confused and ready to believe and belong. I wanted her so badly to be redeemed, and at the movie, it seems like she might be, at least in people’s eyes via this film.
The other two Manson girls were excellent as well! Marianne Rendón as Susan Atkins was a bit of a wild one, but so arresting on screen. The one person I couldn’t take my eyes off of was Sosie Bacon as Patricia Krenwinkel. There’s something about her that made me want to lean forward and absorb everything she says. She’s so carefree but closed, enriched by the teaching, but afraid of change. In some of the final scenes after she’s shaken to her core, I was genuinely scared for her … but also mad at her. It let out a different amount of emotions I couldn’t process.
Matt Smith’s performance as Charlie was fantastic. Smith, time and time again, proves that he is an astounding character actor. Since Charlie Says isn’t really about Charlie, he wasn’t there sometimes, but when he was, he made that presence known. It’s incredible how commanding and intense he is. It’s also unbelievable how much he didn’t look like the man, but you didn’t care because he was just that damn good and embodied that narcissistic, manipulative man-child that Charlie was. From the soft-spoken musician to the manipulative egomaniac, Smith gives every bit of who Charlie might have been to show the man we all know today.
Charlie Says was a triumph in telling the story of three women who were under the spell of a sociopath. It also shows the story of redemption in the smallest of ways. We may not be able to agree that these girls were victims, but to me, they were. They went in thinking that they would join a family, a community, and they came out with blood on their hands. It wasn’t the life that they would have chosen, but that’s the lesson of this story. Victims aren’t linear, and each of them have a story to tell.