If we tell you that Charlie Says might well be the worst Manson movie ever made, that should be enough to make you take a deep breath, given the competition. Yet Mary Harron and frequent collaborator Guenivere Turner have somehow managed to craft an entirely empty revisionist Charlie movie that on the face of it sticks to the facts, yet actually subtly twists them to match its own agenda while at the same time failing to provide any sense of new insight, dramatic quality or even the outrageous offensiveness that would be needed to bring something new to the story.
Ostensibly based on Ed Sanders‘ The Family (Sanders gets s producer credit, but there’s little here that come solely from his book) in reality the film seems as much to be taken from the writings of Karlene Faith, who befriended Manson girl Leslie Van Houten as a prison visitor, and is here seen as the person responsible for breaking Manson’s psychological hold on the girls. The thrust of the film seems to be how feminism (and Christianity, though that aspect is downpedalled somewhat) saved the girls from his pernicious influence, though a cynic might suggest that they simply replaced one unquestioning belief system with another to use as a crutch and an excuse, and that Faith is no less a manipulative guru than Manson was. Deprogramming is more often than not simply reprogramming, after all, and these were three vulnerable women searching for meaning. And any meaning would do, given the enormity of their crimes.
In any case, it’s the sort of film that bluntly hammers its points home and, like the worst TV drama (which, nudity aside, this often painfully resembles), telegraphs every moment and plot point that either reinforces the point it wants to make or which might flesh out the story – so when Dennis Wilson or Terry Melcher make appearances, it has to have the characters named constantly so we know who they are (“Terry Melcher is coming, get everything ready for Terry Melcher, oh, hello Mr Melcher”). It tries to cram every minor detail of the story into the narrative in order to look comprehensive, but then completely ignores major points that are inconvenient truths, and makes shocking shifts in the timelines of events, putting words in people’s mouths (Manson here clearly tells his followers to go to Melcher’s own house and kill everyone inside, which is frankly an outrageous leap from known facts) and altering widely acknowledged reactions to build drama and make certain people sympathetic.
Van Houten is the central figure here (we’ve already had a film from the viewpoint of Linda Kasabian, who is barely even present here) and if the audience is to ‘like’ her, then she has to be shown as, if not innocent, then at least someone who was at least forced to become a person that she wasn’t. The film makes a point of showing Van Houten being continually troubled by and doubtful of Family life as Charlie breaks her down and kills her ego (or, as the film would suggest, brainwashes her) and then shows her as reluctant, horrified and disgusted as she takes part in the killing of the La Biancas – but that’s a decidedly dubious revisionist interpretation that is designed to manipulate the viewer. Equally, Manson’s audition for Melcher is made to look pathetic and tuneless, a clear and unsubtle effort to make us see him as a loser – but we not only have Charlie’s actual recordings to show that Look at Your Game, Girl is a cracking tune well performed, but all the evidence that exists to show that Melcher did actually record the songs. More to the point, if Manson didn’t have something about him, where did his followers come from and how could he make them do the things that he supposedly made them do? The interesting Manson film might ask what it was that the Family offered that appealed so much to young women (and young men – it couldn’t just be the free love, given that that was part of the broader hippy lifestyle anyway), why Charlie’s philosophy became so embedded in the psyche of many people and why it continued to resonate throughout the decades. To do so, of course, you would need to humanise Manson and perhaps ask questions beyond the official Helter Skelter story, and no filmmaker is really going to do that.
Ironically though, despite the film clearly trying to make him out to be abusive, misogynistic and pathetic, Manson regularly comes across here as more thoughtful and a lot smarter than anyone else in the story. Take that any way you want to. Matt Smith is a surprisingly good version of Charlie – he doesn’t quite look right, but he’s better at capturing some of Manson’s mannerisms and quirks. It’s the only decent performance in the film. But his obvious attempts to make the character seem small and empty and pathetic don’t work – he’s the most charismatic and driven person in the film. Admittedly, the girls all seem shallow and needy – partly because the performances are uniformly dreadful, partly because the film wants us to see them in that way. Both Harron and Turner clearly have an agenda here. Oddly though, for such a feminist-driven film, the message we end up taking from it is that young women are apparently unable to think for themselves and so are not responsible for their own actions. It’s a constant problem with Manson movies – either you glamourise Charlie and credit him with more power and charm than you’d want to admit he had, or you make him look like a pathetic grifter, which then begs the question of just how he could make anyone do something that they didn’t want to. And the conundrum remains – if the Manson girls – primarily the educated, well brought up offspring of middle class families – are the victims that this film posits, then what of Manson himself, a product of childhood abuse and neglect, institutionalised for most of his life? The suggestion that these women would be such empty vessels as to unquestionably do the bidding of this misfit is the stumbling block of the entire Manson mythology that has him as uniquely guilty Svengali and the girls (but never, oddly enough, Tex and Bobby) as manipulated victims. It robs the women of personal agency and responsibility, and that seems a very unfeminist idea.
This film sits in denial of their responsibility in anything other than the physical – they carried out the crimes, though here they are all shown as scared and desperate during them – another deviation from what we generally know as the truth – and we are encouraged to sympathise and empathise with them as victims (the actual victims in this case – the ones who were murdered – are either briefly shown and unnamed, or not acknowledged at all). Fair enough, perhaps – they all paid a high price for moments of madness, and have been punished more severely and more unfairly than other, more brutal, dangerous killers who didn’t make international headlines and who remain a threat on release (and no one really believes that the girls pose any danger to society any more). But the film sometimes seems determined to suggest that all violent women are empty vessels and child-like creatures who have been manipulated and driven to extremes by that modern bugbear, toxic masculinity, and so not responsible for their crimes. That might be true in some cases – notably domestic abuse cases – but it’s an insulting simplification to suggest that it’s true in all: women are perfectly capable of becoming monsters on their own. Personal responsibility is an unpopular idea these days, but the uncomfortable truth is that while the Manson Girls might well deeply regret their actions, they made those decisions and will have to live with it.
Perhaps every interpretation of this story – where the facts are far from clear and increasingly shrouded in memory and wishful thinking – will have to form its own version of the truth (though it’s always depressing seeing film critics and audiences talking as if throwaway films like this offer some sort of unvarnished truth or deep insight). But when that truth is arrived at by the misdirection of facts and the manipulation of the viewer, then we have a right to be annoyed – using a real life tragedy to further your own ideals is every bit as exploitative as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, frankly.
There’s no doubt that the Manson family was a patriarchal society, that Manson was driven by demons that his followers never understood, or that his desire to kill the ego – one that many a religious and political group (two sides of the same controlling coin, of course) – perhaps worked too well in stripping some people of the restraints of conventional morality. But this ham-fisted, cluttered and pointless film is too driven by its own agenda to explore the wider contradictions of Family life, and ultimately offers no more insight into the Family dynamics and the chaotic delusions that took hold than any other previous retelling of the story. That’s bad enough; worse is the fact that Charlie Says is full of more manipulation, revisionism, mythology and misinformation than was ever floating around Spahn Ranch.