Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon
Watch Charlie Says online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Google Play / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
Fresh from Netflix’s Alias Grace, director Mary Harron returns to her specialist subject of serial killers with the intriguing drama Charlie Says. The first out of the gates in a mini-run on Charles Manson (Netflix’s Mindhunter and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will both feature him), Harron’s movie benefits from bringing something neither of those has: a female perspective of the horrific killings.
Based on Ed Sanders’ book The Family, the film primarily focuses on the work of Karlene Faith, founder of the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project. She finds herself drawn into the aftermath of the Manson Killings, interviewing and attempting to help Leslie (Hannah Murray), Patricia (Sosie Bacon) and Susan (Marianne Rendon) through her role as behind-bars educator.
Merritt Wever is fantastic as Karlene, simultaneously gentle and sympathetic, firm and fact-driven, appalled and cautious. The film’s most compelling moments involve just seeing these women interact, as the trio exert power where they can, and manipulate the guards to be kind to them – despite the fact that they committed murder most brutal. It’s a meeting of wills and minds, but the strongest mind is not present: that of Charles Manson (Matt Smith), whose influence tellingly still holds sway years later, as his followers espouse his strange visions of the future and try to live by his extremely specific moral code.
The flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch, where Manson’s community was based, aren’t quite as compelling, but that’s mainly a reflection of how good the quartet of women are than anything to do with Smith. Since Doctor Who, the actor has increasingly diversified and constantly impressed, and here is no exception: he delivers an impressive performance as Manson, a brutal bully of a man who talks of love and freedom but exerts control and abuses it to suit his own childish ego.
The interplay between the two timelines is effective, as the movie builds to an unexpectedly low-key climax. But while the balancing of these two perspectives on events may not feel like it quite pays off, this is nonetheless a quietly intriguing and gently disturbing companion piece to Alias Grace, which finds fresh, surprisingly pertinent depths to the Manson story by examining the line between consent, complicity and compassion, and asking who and who can’t be regarded as a victim of one man’s disturbed mind.