2019, R, 111 min. Directed by Mary Harron. Starring Hannah Murray, Matt Smith, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Merritt Wever, Suki Waterhouse, Chace Crawford, Annabeth Gish, Kayli Carter, Grace Van Dien.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 16, 2019
In his epic work on the mechanics and purpose of the criminal justice system, Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault saw three forces at play: the need of society for punishment to be done and seen to be done, the necessity of contrition by the offender, and rehabilitation and re-integration into society. If one force gains too much traction, then the equation collapses, and either the system collapses, or it becomes merely a tool of torture.
American Psycho adapter Mary Harron's version of the Manson Family arrives on VOD just as time audiences are roiling over Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood's treatment of the Tate-LaBianca murders. She broaches those issues raised by Foucault – sometime successfully, sometimes less so – by following three of Manson's "girls." Leslie Van Houten (Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Rendón) have been imprisoned at the California Institute for Women, and adult educator Karlene Faith (Wever) has been assigned to teach the three women as they sit on death row for their roles in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Instead, she finds Lulu, Sadie, and Katie - the names given to them by Manson.
Taken from Faith's auto/biographical The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, period incarceration drama Charlie Says is built around the prison sequences, interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to the trio's life at Spahn Ranch, living an increasingly perverse interpretation of the hippie life at the behest of Charlie himself (Smith, a spider under a tangle of beard and hair). While each woman is still in deep sway to his sinister influence while behind bars, Van Houten becomes the center of Faith's attention as the all-American innocent who committed a crime that became a cultural turning point. Faith, as Harron and the audience's avatar, sees the person, not the headline.
As the delusional Van Outen, Murray (Game of Thrones, Skins) goes far beyond the little-girl-lost outlines of the character, instead letting her slow, twisting path to understanding play out painfully on her face. Yet while it is bloody and harrowing, Harron still undoubtedly softens some of Van Houten's engagement in the murders. More significantly, by only focusing on her life in the Family and in jail, there's no way to understand what made Van Houten and the others so prone to Manson's influence. Arguably, Leslie Libman's undervalued 2016 version of events, Manson’s Lost Girls had much more to say about both their contrition and, in some cases, eager participation. It also put the women at the center, rather than as bodies in decaying orbit of Manson's black hole.
It's one of the seeming contradictions of Charlie Says that the biggest attractor to the narrative is yet another barn-burning, complex and strange performance from Smith. Engulfed in a monster, much as he was as the fairytale-esque Bully in Ryan Gosling's Lost River, his performance is uncanny: grievously charismatic, he lays out all the steps whereby a bunch of hippie kids could be drawn into his circle (no moment is more telling than when a newcomer shows a glimmer of resistance and he immediately expels her). But for all the strength and uncanny verisimilitude of Smith's performance, there's the same question of context that afflicts the other characters. Manson was a monster, no doubt about it; but he was a monster created by others, just as he created his own monsters. Every question of contrition and culpability of the women of the family can be asked of him: The answers will be different, but the fact they go unasked and unanswered feels like an omission, and pushes Charlie Says close to apologia for the women who committed heinous crimes. Wever even questions whether she should subject Van Houten to the misery of having to face her own role - an underlying tenet of a functional judicial system. A "what if" coda involving a couple of Hell's Angels is as much of a fantasy sequence as anything in Once Upon a Time ..., but at least that had the excuse of being a fairy tale. In a film built around emotional complexity and intellectual questioning, it feels like a glib cop-out.
At its strongest, Charlie Says remembers that true justice is never easy, nor should it ever be. Its importance is in Harron asking those very questions, putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of contemplating at what point punishment is enough, and that gives Charlie Says true worth.