Charlie Says Movie Review

Written by Karin Crighton

Released by IFC Films

Directed by Mary Harron
Written by Guinevere Turner (based on a novel by Karlene Faith)
2019, 104 minutes, Rated R
Released on May 10th, 2019

Hannah Murray as Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten
Merritt Weaver as Karlene Faith
Sosie Bacon as Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel
Marianne Rendon as Susan “Sadie” Atkins
Matt Smith as Charles Manson

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I’ve never read much about Charles Manson; I knew the well-covered murder spree and heavy drug use. Being ignorant made his story more mystical and the unconceivable power he held over his followers near magic. Charlie Says does everything to dispel that and I thank filmmaker Mary Harron (American Psycho) for showing Manson for what he was: a mentally unhinged narcissistic racist who manipulated the most vulnerable of children to make him feel like a big man.

Charlie Says revolves the awakening of the three Manson girls Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon; Aquarius), and Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones). After laughing during their trial and carving Xs in their own foreheads to match their idol, they are locked up together while California determines what to do with death penalty convicts with a moratorium on capital punishment. A prison volunteer, Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver; The Walking Dead), is enlisted by the warden (Annabeth Gish) to occupy their time as they wait on where they will spend their lives. Faith decides she will use this opportunity to break Manson’s hold over these three. As she learns about the life of a Manson girl through the eyes of Lulu, from her recruitment by a friend at 16-years-old to the night she volunteered to help kill the LaBiancas to prove her devotion, Faith learns just how deep and potentially inextricable Manson’s madness is from their psyche.

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This film is curiously powerful. While I was watching, I was at first distanced from the obsession, and was wondering if the cinematography was failing at engaging its audience. As Matt Smith’s Charles Manson grew more and more dangerous and cruel, I understood this methodology. Guinevere Turner’s script is masterful at revealing the vulnerability of the teenagers and children Manson controlled. Smith (Doctor Who) plays the cult leader as an obviously manipulative abuser, immediately finding a way to question an inductee about their fathers. If they say anything positive, he quickly insults and rejects them. Bouncing back and forth between joyfully preaching to his disciples and quietly threatening them for questioning even the smallest statement, Smith delivers a powerful performance that had me frightened for these girls.

Nearly everything works in this movie. The excessive use of sunlight for lighting at the ranch versus the cold fluorescents of jail, the low glow of the lamps during murders and orgies, the firelight of Lulu’s first night that enraptured her. The natural faces and hair, the loose hippie clothes, and the heinous Nehru jackets are all very authentic. The only thing that could have heightened the experience would have been casting age-accurate actresses for Manson’s family. Suki Waterhouse is only 27; Hannah Murray is only 29, but casting kids that could be Disney stars would go further in understanding Manson was brainwashing and screwing minors as a man in his 30s.

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I’ve been telling everyone I know to watch this movie when it premiers this Friday, May 10th, and I understand why. These symptoms of narcissism and “negging” and manipulation are alive and well. The rise of NXIVM and why people stay with abusive partners cannot be ignored. The world is a frightening place where it’s honestly hard to tell if you’re making any progress in your own life. But the solution is never to turn control over to someone else. And if someone tries to isolate you or take your control, it is dangerous. The average reader may find this overreactive, but this is how powerful this movie’s message is: here I’d like to include the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.

Charlie Says is revolutionary, but not in the way Manson ever imagined. It’s revolutionary by proving that there is nothing mystical about mania or cult leaders. It’s only mystical that we let things get so bad someone would rather give up control than face the world alone.

Leslie Van Houten’s last parole hearing was held April 25th, 2019. A decision is pending whether she will ever see the free world again. She does not want to be called Lulu.

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Movie: fivestars Cover

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