There’s been a lot of writing in recent years about the best way to talk with a conspiratorial-minded person, and Harron and Turner seem up on a lot of this literature. Don’t automatically discount absurd beliefs as absurd. Ideally, nudging and follow-up questions can prod the believer into seeing their own logical cartwheels for what they are, and they’ll find the absurdity themselves. Faith gives the Manson women books about domestic abuse and has them sit with Black professors, and Harron intertwines these sessions with flashbacks to the instantly recognizable manipulations and neuroses of Manson. Leslie is shown to retain a shred of skepticism for a process that’s nakedly about elevating Manson into a hippie king with dominion over his harem, but fear of both Manson’s wrath and of losing her community quiet that inner doubt. Within prison, where Manson can’t get to her and her comrades can’t leave her, that fear is neutralized and the skeptical voice can begin to speak louder.
Being largely unfamiliar with the details of the Manson murders, I can’t judge if Turner’s depiction of Manson was informed by modern types or if she stuck to journalistic recreations. If it’s the latter, then pick-up artistry owes a lot to Charles Manson. For the isolated young women that he folds into the Family, Manson employs a combination of negging and dependence, along with a healthy dose of LSD. The man himself is a pathetic, no-talent weakling with a thwarted dream of pop music that shreds his paper-thin ego. Harron includes this repulsive portrayal alongside the utter devotion to him by the women in the past and the present day. The film would fail if this dissonance resulted in despising the women for their gullibility, but Harron and her cast ensures that the audience sees them with clear-eyed pity, which morphs into a sadness that they would both take lives and throw their own lives away for such a useless man.
Walking that tightrope the nimblest is Murray, an actor I’ve followed since her debut on British TV teen series Skins. Harron’s camera loves her unique face, often settling on it as Murray’s Leslie wrestles with what to do next. In two of these kinds of scenes, one focused on a pre-murders decision and one after, the former loses no suspense in spite of knowing what she’s going to choose and the latter achieves maximal power by not knowing what she’s going to do. Of her two fellow jailmates, Bacon’s Krenwinkel is unsettling as the truest of true believers, such that I began referring to her as ‘Charlie Says’ in my notes based on how she prefaces all of her sentences with that phrase. Her intensity, especially in the flashbacks, is quite scary, and it would’ve been impossible to make her, as opposed to Leslie, the film’s focus. Smith nimbly steps into the role of the infamous villain, and accentuates his most disgusting qualities with zeal. Harron takes care to demonstrate that he was diabolical in how he preyed on these women’s psyches, as opposed to being a font of charisma who could’ve been successful at anything he wanted, and Smith nails the distinction. As Faith, Weaver lies in wait for her big moment in the film’s final confessional scene, and the experience is not unlike watching Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips. In both cases, the emotional aftermath is surprising but exactly right.
To again reference Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Charlie Says shares a tragic air with that film though it wildly differs in where that tragedy builds from. Tarantino’s ode to mid-century Hollywood rightly sees what was lost in Sharon Tate, among others, but Harron and Turner have the far more difficult job of conveying how much wider the tragedy extends. Memorializing murder victims is all well and good, but it’s hard to find the same amount of empathy for murderers. Charlies Says succeeds in the realm. The empathy doesn’t absolve them, but it maybe makes the world less cruel and thus less hospitable for future murderers. It certainly allows the women to rededicate their lives towards something other than the glorification of a man who requires the opposite. Like so many other female directors of her caliber, Harron doesn’t work enough. When she does, she’s not going to make it easy on herself, but she’s able to clear whatever hurdles she places in her path. A-