In Charlie Says, the Manson Girls’ Stories are Shown From Within Charles Manson’s Tyrannical Shadow
THE OPAL CLUB x TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL
Charlie Says, an American biographical drama film directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), written by Guinevere Turner, is not the Charles Manson film you’d expect. Matt Smith’s Charles Manson is not a handsome, charismatic man. He’s not a Ted Bundy “dream boy”. He is vile and dirty and all fragile masculinity and violence.
The romanticization of serial killers has been a heavily discussed topic lately with one of the millennial generation’s most famous hunk Zac Efron playing the extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile Ted Bundy. Going into the film, one does wonder whether Matt Smith will kick off a strange infatuation over the character of Charles Manson (a film-induced shadow of the infatuation that inexplicably followed Manson throughout his whole life).
We’ve seen it too many times before, haven’t we? The super sexy yet…murderous boy trope. Just remember the collective Tumblr-induced obsession over Tate Langdon of AHS Murder House, the same sort of fetish over Kai Anderson of AHS Cult (damn it, Evan Peters), You’s Gossip Girl swoon-fest Instagram accounts, or even the recent spike of fangirling over Ross Lynch’s Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer.
But Charlie Says, which depicts the infamous summer of 1969 and the consequential prison years later, is not reeeeally about Charles Manson at all. In fact, Charlie is an idea, a story, a religion that looms over the film and is shown, prism-like, both as the girls see him...and also out of their adoring light - terrifying, dirty, and insane. Matt Smith, on the screen, is an intimidating blend of the hypnotic cult leader and the deranged man we all know.
What stood out most in Mary Harron’s film was her interpretation of the romanticization of terrible men and the problems it brings. Manson was put on a pedestal by the brainwashed girls (Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon), : they worshiped him, were grateful for domestic violence, yearned to be chosen to spend a night with him. The audience sees Charlie through their eyes: he is at times magnetic and charismatic and charming and handsome.
And yet, the audience is also shown all the bits the girls chose to ignore (the violence, the nonsensical ideas, the abuse, the manic sociopathic behavior, etc). The girls ride on the ebbing waves of hysterical obsession and repressed doubts about this god of theirs. The same way we get into problematic relationships and talk ourselves out of recognizing red flags (or rather, make ourselves “reinterpret” said red flags) the girls talk each other out of what we, as the audience, see clear as day: Charles Manson is a sick and disgusting piece of shit.
The girls’ constant codependent (yet competitive) relationships were what the film chose to focus on the most, and what it does best. When the Manson girls are in prison, three years after the Tate Murders, they still live and breathe Charlie. They are happy to live in their delusions, which they reinspire in each other day after day. Charlie is so embedded in their minds that they see the whole world through a lens of his teachings. What is perhaps most painful to see is that what they took most out of all of Charlie’s dogma was that they, as women, are nothing in comparison to him. Therefore, their conversations and the rationalizations of their lives are drenched in Charlie’s toxic masculinity and Manson-brand misogyny. They put each other down, they view their bodies as men’s playthings, they repress feminist ideas as nonsensical. Without Manson present, they act as him to continue their fantasies and oppressions. For example, the girls willingly participated in routine orgies with Manson and the man in the family; and yet theylaugh and ask when their women’s rights teacher is a lesbian when she shows them women’s reproductive organs in an anatomy book.
The girls are complicit in each other’s disempowerment. Mary Harron seems to show how women could be toxic to each other if their values are rooted in misogynistic self-hate. But she also shows how women could help other women climb out of that poisonous mindset with understanding, love, care, and self-respect.
The film is never slow or tedious, and it is beautifully made. Nonetheless, it seems like our hours-long Netflix special spoiled brains yearned for more. More of the girls backstories, more of Manson’s foul antics and pathetic musician dreams, more of their life in the cult, more of why and how of the actual murders, the dramatization of which does not really add anything the characters or the plot except a climax point. Nonetheless, this is definitely a film to add to that mystic “I’ll add it to the list!” movie list of yours.