Film Review: Charlie Says

Mary Harron’s drama Charlie Says is a meditation on some of the members of the Manson Family. The film is quietly captivating. 

Years after the notorious Manson murders, three women who killed for him are incarcerated in an isolated cell block. When a graduate student attempts to provide education to them, she sees that they are still under Manson’s spell…

Focusing on three members of the Manson Family, Charlie Says looks at the motivations of these women as they look back on the past. The film arrives among a spate of Manson-related films (The Haunting of Sharon Tate was recently released, and Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is due for release later this Summer). Unlike the former, and indeed some other previous films on the subject, director Mary Harron’s film does not feel at all exploitative. The gruesome depictions are not the focal point; instead Harron ponders the horror of the young women’s decisions. 

The narrative unfolds in an interesting manner. The decision to situate the audience with Karlene is a shrewd one. Audience will be able to relate to her knowledge of the crimes and her fascination with the motivations of the women. The story is told in a fragmented fashion, with lengthy past sequences interspersed with the present-day prison scenes. The contrast between these scenes is stark, as Harron intended. 

Viewers will know the outcome of Leslie’s immersion into the cult, yet Harron keeps viewers engaged. Viewers can share the frustration of Karlene as she tries to get through to her students. The meditative approach works well. Viewers will know what is coming, but Harron treats the climax and the culmination of Leslie’s brainwashing and action rather than focusing on the detail of the murders. It is a better film for this. 

Charlie Says is shot well; the warm tones are a good contrast to prison scenes. The film captures the era in an evocative manner. Hannah Murray gives a solid performance. Matt Smith is suitably convincing as Charlie, elsewhere Merritt Wever and Marianne Rendón are also good. 

Charlie Says does not seek to excuse actions of the women. Instead, the film seeks to understand the journey which led them to that point. The final sequence is most poignant; a fitting end to a thoughtful film. 

Charlie Says is available on Digital HD from 22nd July, and DVD from 29th July 2019.

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