Some months in advance of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a film about the Manson murders, comes Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says,” a very strained attempt to understand the motivations of the women who killed for Charles Manson.
“Charlie Says” is based on a book by Karlene Faith, a teacher who started working with three of Manson’s “girls” three years after they were put in prison for murder. The title comes from the constant refrain of these brainwashed young women, who still believe outlandish things that Manson told them about becoming winged elves after a race war.
The sound design is atmospheric and subjective in the first scenes, where we see Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray, “Game of Thrones”) showering after the stabbing of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, but this subjectivity is abandoned once the film takes us to the Spahn Ranch where Manson holds sway.
“Charlie Says” founders especially on problems of miscasting and an inability to suggest the requisite 1960s atmosphere. Matt Smith, so believable as Christopher Isherwood in the TV film “Christopher and His Kind” and as Robert Mapplethorpe in “Mapplethorpe,” is totally unconvincing as this misogynistic would-be messiah and musician. Manson needs to have a hard-bitten, road-stink sort of quality that cannot really be acted, and the wide-eyed Smith is lost in all the scenes where he needs to manipulate his cult members. Even worse is the casting of the sweet-faced Chace Crawford as the vicious Tex Watson, a man who committed the most gruesome violence during the Manson murders.
The major problem with “Charlie Says” is that the Manson scenes, which take up roughly half of the running time, do not or cannot suggest to us why these young women fell under Manson’s power. Smith’s Manson seems absurd and ill and very un-seductive right away, and if he was like that in life, this makes any attempt to understand Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, “13 Reasons Why”) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) very difficult. Of all the cast here, only Rendón (who played Patti Smith to Matt Smith’s Mapplethorpe) really captures the essence of the real-life person she is playing, and even she is stymied by the limitations of the script.
There is a nearly-effective scene where we almost begin to understand why these women stay with Manson. It is dinner time, and Manson randomly disparages the salad dressing that Atkins made. She defends herself — because she has a naturally bold and leader-like nature — but Manson slaps her repeatedly and brings her back under his control by moving their mutual aggression into the dynamics of a sexual encounter, which Atkins has been trained to see as love.
But this insight into the way things worked at the Spahn Ranch is mitigated by regular attempts to see Van Houten as the one who might have gotten away. This plays into the way Van Houten has presented herself in recent years as an articulate, remorseful, Mary Tyler Moore-type nice lady horrified at what she did as a young woman. But “Charlie Says” too often takes that image at face value and refrains from asking tougher questions about why she and the other women remained on the ranch with Manson and eventually did his criminal bidding.
As “Charlie Says” goes on, it becomes clear that Harron and scriptwriter Guinevere Turner (the two previously collaborated on the big-screen adaptation of “American Psycho”) should have made their entire film about the process of Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever, “Nurse Jackie”) trying to reach the three lost women and how Van Houten in particular begins to doubt her loyalty to Manson. Had they done so, they could have avoided the outright disastrous staging of the Sharon Tate murder and the LaBianca killings, which is preceded by a very short scene where Mr. LaBianca rubs the feet of Mrs. LaBianca. This is meant to humanize and particularize them before their murders at the hands of Manson’s gang, but the time we spend with them is so brief and so generic that it would have been much better to have done without it entirely.
There is a feeling in “Charlie Says” that this subject cannot be dramatized unless you understand just how many drugs these people were taking and the effect this had on their minds. (We see very little drug use in the Manson scenes.) That the film ends on a literal wish-fulfillment scene where Van Houten chooses to get away from Manson feels like a much too easy and sentimental response that has not been earned.