Charlie Says Review
True Crime has saturated film and TV, and now, in recent years, podcasts have become increasingly popular and accessible to large audiences. 70s killers such as Dahmer, Bundy, The Zodiac Killer and BTK remain fascinating subjects, not least in the cinematic depictions of their crimes and lives. One who has influenced a number of portrayals - given the decades he remained on Death Row - is Charles Manson, and his followers, most of whom are still incarcerated.
Screenwriter Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron, who previously collaborated on American Psycho (2000) and The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), add their considerable talents to produce this version of events during the time of the cult leader. The addition of Matt Smith as Charles Manson could be considered a stroke of genius (or huge mistake depending on your viewpoint) due to his uncanny resemblance to the infamous criminal, however, Charlie Says focusses predominantly on three of Manson's female followers, Leslie 'Lulu' Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia 'Katie' Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan 'Sadie' Atkins (Marianne Rendón). Women who were blindly obedient to Manson's every word and instruction, and which ultimately led them to commit murder and inevitable incarceration.
We are introduced to an idealistic grad student Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) who runs an adult education class in prison as she tries to dispel the bizarre delusions that these women cling to; the feared approach of the end of the world and their messiah. Faith even attempts to teach them about feminism and racial integration through rehabilitation. Leaving her often shocked at the indoctrination and absolute belief of these women as she faces resistance from colleagues and prison guards alike.
It is through Hannah Murray's Leslie Van Houten who serves as the viewer's gateway into the chaos, depravity and religious mumbo-jumbo of the Manson Cult. Murray's performance is beautifully subtle as the wide-eyed seeker who initially happens upon the free-spirited group promising adventure and fulfilment. Charlie slowly wins her over by encouraging sexual exploration and spiritual awakening but steadily takes control of each group member and moulds the entire group into his personal sycophantic arsenal, as his misguided ambitions for musical success and fame cloud his mind.
Each member of the cult is assigned specific tasks and jobs designated, of course, by Manson leading to the LaBianca murders. On the second of these outings, Leslie, Patricia and Susan break into the home of Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien). The rest, as they say, is history.
The film fails to achieve its intended ambitions. Matt Smith's resemblance to Manson is strong which is, at times, mesmerising, but his performance overall is underwhelming and unconvincing as the notorious cult leader. It is difficult to make the distinction between a lack of authenticity - which is often questionable when playing a real person - either due to Smith's interpretation of the 'character' or just the blind faith of the participants as portrayed through the three leading women.
Charlie Says attempts to depict the cause and effect of Manson's words, and 50 years later dramatising the influence he had and the decisions made and behaviour elicited - however convincingly - feels almost preposterous.
Signature Entertainment presents Charlie Says available now on Digital HD and DVD