Let’s face it, there have been a lot of films based on real serial killers over the past couple of years. On killer seems to be more popular than others, Charles Manson. Maybe it’s because his and his “family’s” is the most intriguing case.
Director Mary Harron set out to tell the Manson Family’s tale from a unique angle in Charlie Says. The film centers on Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray) who joins the Manson Family, a path that turns her from an innocent girl into a convicted killer.
Charles Manson (Matt Smith) sends her to commit the LaBianca murders. Van Houten, Susan Atkins (Marianne Redón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon).
We watch as Leslie arrives at the Manson settlement. We get glimpses of her story first as she meets the Family, then in the form of flashbacks as the three women from the Manson Family sit in their cells or while talking about the events with Karlene Faith, a teacher played by Merritt Wever.
The film spends a lot of time covering orgies but fails to delve into why Houten or the other women sought out Manson or why they actually stayed. Was it something from their past that made seek this mad man? Did they have daddy issues? I would have liked to have seen more about all three women, especially more about Houten seeing that she is the main character and since the last part of the film is aimed at breaking Manson’s hold on the three by using their pasts which we know nothing about.
The film’s cinematography was fantastic. The wardrobes, sets, and props are dead on like the characters stepped right out of the late 1960s and their surroundings had been frozen in time.
Matt Smith left me very impressed. We get to see a character we’ve never seen him perform. His mannerisms, the look he gave on screen, the crazy eyes, his tone of speaking, all mimic Manson so well that it’s scary. I’m going to be honest when I first heard about this film last year and found out that Smith would be playing the notorious psychopath, I thought to myself that he was a strange fit. I admit I was very wrong. Smith plays the most believable Charlie Manson I have ever seen, and that’s saying something.
Hannah Murray’s role as Leslie Van Houten did a nice job of playing the emotionally unstable young woman. Her character is nearly in tears most of the film, which I imagine is hard to do. Unfortunately, her character lacks depth, but that not’s her fault. It’s never really revealed what her character’s thinking and the film lacks any true moments of emotion except for the scene where she’s stabbing her victim. Again, I do not blame Murray. If the scene is not written she cannot perform it.
The characters who spent a lot of time on screen with Murray were played by Marianne Rendón (Susan Atkins), Sosie Bacon (Patricia Krenwinkel). Both women did a great job of portraying submissive, true Charlie fans, who would kill to make him happy.
Grace Van Dien plays the role of Sharon Tate, the actress who was murdered by the “Family” while eight months pregnant. Dien’s resemblance to Tate is uncanny. She was fantastic and I hate that she didn’t get more screen time since her death plays such a key role.
While both Manson and his Family are an incredibly interesting subject, a lot was left out of the film which chose to focus more on T&A than the psychology of the real people or the development of the characters. Besides the fact that Houten slept around, served Manson, and participated in one victim’s death, the film revealed very little about her.
Charlie Says felt like a half-hearted attempt at doing something new. It was a missed opportunity to tell us something we didn’t already know. If you are going to make a movie inspired by such a well known true story, at least show us something we haven’t seen before. I’m giving Charlie Says a 3 out of 5.
Charlie Says premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1st, 2019. The film opens in theaters in Los Angeles, Orange County, and New York on May 10th.