The ’60s may have ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, as Joan Didion wrote in “The White Album,” but our attempts to understand the events of that day show no sign of slowing down. With Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” set to be released on the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders, “American Psycho” director Mary Harron has beaten him to the punch by a year with “Charlie Says” — not that the film contains any great insights about Charles Manson or the crimes of his murderous Family.
Harron focuses her attention on three of Manson’s acolytes: Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and especially Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), who after having their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment found themselves being taught by a grad student (Merritt Wever) at the California Institution for Women in an attempt to undo some of the cult leader’s teachings. Harron jumps between their lessons on women’s lib and literature to Leslie’s days at Spahn Ranch, where she’s renamed “Lulu” and eventually goes on to brutally stab Rosemary LaBianca more than a dozen times, her face covered in blood as she lets out a primal wail.
Matt Smith is miscast in the crucial role of Manson, failing to summon the cult leader’s manic energy or make us understand just how it was that he had so many under his thrall. There’s nothing intimidating about this vision of him, and when he tells his devotees to do things like “let go of your ego and be like the finger on a hand,” it can’t help sounding like the manipulative gibberish it is. Neither the film in general nor Smith in particular can replicate his aura, and so we can never fully understand how he came to hold such sway over his followers — a relief, in a way, but also a failure to fully immerse us in their world.
Compare that to a film like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and the problem only becomes more pronounced. Where Sean Durkin’s cult thriller was terrifying in its portrayal of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) losing herself to a cause she can’t fully understand, “Charlie Says” mostly has you shaking your head at the silliness on display. It comes across like summer camp for burnouts, with semi-forced bouts of group sex and jam sessions in which Manson strums his acoustic guitar to the delight of his frequently topless coterie.
The title is constantly repeated, with Lulu and her fellow inmates countering every one of their teacher’s attempts at imparting knowledge on them by telling her what “Charlie says…” about this or that. The film is set three years after the trio’s incarceration, at which point none of them have seen Manson in ages — but still haven’t come close to relearning how to think for themselves.
The film is ultimately most interesting for the way it portrays Manson as a frustrated musician, one who succeeds in his attempts to get the Beach Boys to record one of his songs but fails in his ultimate goal of getting signed by a label — a curious aspiration for a man who refers to everyone outside his sphere of influence as “piggies” and “plastic people.” If nothing else, “Charlie Says” succeeds in demystifying the man with a pentagram carved into his skull: He may be society’s go-to conception of evil, but he was also a drugged-out racist who wrote forgettable songs that even his acolytes probably didn’t enjoy as much as they were letting on.
Karlene, the women’s teacher, is continually taken aback by the things Manson got them to believe: that a race war was coming, that they would survive it by living in a vast underground cave, and that they would eventually sprout wings and become elves. She refuses to concede that they’re a lost cause, however, and does her utmost to remind the three of who they were before they met Charles Manson so that they might regain their sense of self. Her efforts are met with mixed results.
“What was it for?” Leslie is asked by Karlene late in the film; she can’t answer. Neither can “Charlie Says,” which may be the point: All these many years haven’t brought much clarity, but one certainly hopes that the next movie about Manson — or the one after that, or the one after that — does.
“Charlie Says” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.