Mary Harron’s Charlie Says centers on three of the women from the Manson gang in prison in California, long after they’ve committed those horrendous murders. Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins live in cells on death row as the film begins, not because they’re to be executed, but because the prison doesn’t know how else to segregate them from the rest of the inmates.
The movie is based on a book by Karlene Faith, a teacher who comes to the prison to work with the young women, and the story is built out of their conversations with Faith, played by Merritt Wever, and their memories of their time at the Spahn Movie Ranch, an old film location outside of Los Angeles.
Charlie Says takes an astonishing look at how people can be warped. Even years later, the women, played by Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendón are bizarrely naïve and blank in the eyes and in their speech. They still quote Manson constantly – they explain what they think they learned on the ranch by saying “Charlie says” and “Charlie says,” and even though the film shows their shift from 1960s free love and hippie disdain for middle class life, you wonder how it all led to murder.
Manson, played by snake-eyed Matt Smith, has the lunatic’s genius for finding and dominating vulnerable people. For the young women he collects, he’s mesmerizing, and he has the patience for slowly bringing them along. As one young woman on the ranch says to a newcomer, “We don’t get hung up about sex. We just be; we let things happen.” It might sound like a prescription for freedom, but it also marks astonishing passivity.
Charlie lectures to his disciples, assembled like school children in front of him. Middle class parents, he says, train their children to have “cookie-cutter minds.” These things sounded like great truths to middle class children at the time, and the genius of the movie is how well Mary Harron, from Guinevere Turner’s script, has the patience to show the slow creep of Manson’s influence. By the campfire, Charlie says, “Take off your clothes for us, Sandy.” Sandy looks stricken, but she has no will to resist as the others undress her. This is standard cult manipulation – Charlie even says that he wants to destroy egos.
But, of course, not his own ego, and he mostly wants pliant women around him, but has little interest in the few men who hang around. One of the events that sets him off, and may have led directly to the murders is when he’s persuaded a music producer to come listen to him sing his own songs. They’re dreadful; his guitar playing is worse, and his topless backup singers out there in the open on the Spahn ranch look pathetic. The producer is Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day, and Melcher’s rejection sends Manson into a vindictive and finally murderous rage.
But the great moment in a film of remarkable insight and care for damaged women comes when the teacher finally interrupts the litany of “Charlie says” and “Charlie says,” and asks directly, “But what do you think?” Faith’s question stymies the women, as if she’s just ripped away their core beliefs. They look lost as if they will never find themselves again. She has also just shaken them with the news that human beings cannot grow wings and become elves.
Charlie Says draws the best portrait of a cult I’ve seen in film. Filmmakers usually seem afraid to film how groups like this actually look and operate. They dress it up, and soften the picture into mush. But Mary Harron looks right into the Manson family, and shows it for its twisted, mindless and malicious banality.