Charlie Says

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Charlie Says
"The finest film of the year so far." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) are already in prison when we meet them, but they're quite the happiest prisoners you're ever likely to see, overflowing with a joy that is delightful and irritating in equal measure - and, in light of what they've done, deeply disturbing. They're not worried. They know it was the right thing. Helter Skelter. They know that once the coming race war in America begins, their saviour will come for them and they'll go to live in caves whilst others kill each other, finally emerging into a brave new world so wonderful that some of them will spontaneously grow wings. Charlie said so.

This is unlike anything that psychology grad student Karlene (Merritt Wever) has ever encountered before. As she works with the young women - who seem completely harmless without Charlie around - she finds herself facing an ethical dilemma. No matter what happens, they're likely to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Given that, is helping them to recognise the truth really the right thing to do? Where does her duty lie when restoring their psychological autonomy - if it's even possible - will destroy their only hope of happiness?

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it's impossible to approach this film without thinking about director Mary Harron's previous take on serial killing, American Psycho. Like that film, this is a near perfect piece of cinema, immaculately rendered, thoroughly immersive and - something most viewers won't be expecting - very funny. Like that film, it takes the popular film trope of an egotistical man terrorising others and uses it to explore much more complex idea about the relationship between fantasy and reality. But there is no possibility, this time, of some viewers missing the point. This is the first feature film about Charles Manson to understand that he wasn't the interesting part of the story. Instead, the focus is all on the women and the process through which they came to believe such obviously delusional things. The fact that just hours after it premièred at Tribeca there were men complaining on the internet about how it sidelined the stories of the male members of the Family is testament to its success.

Amusingly, despite this female-centred narrative, the film only just passes the Bechdel test - that's tricky when practically every utterance from the women is sparked by the desire to impart some of Charlie's wisdom. Fortunately we don't spend all our time inside the prison with them. Much of the story is told in flashback in an earth-toned palette that recalls the changing mood in cinema as the high hopes of the Sixties began to give way to the cynicism of the coming decade. Charlie's little commune up in the California hills feels like an attempt to hold onto a dream that is already dying everywhere else. There, everybody labours at Charlie's command, gathers to hear his speeches. There's no need for these to be particularly deep. Hungry people will grasp at any crust of bread. It's his confidence that marks him out, this self-made guru who sells himself on his rejection of society whilst striving to be everything it most idolises: a rock star, a prophet, a man whose life has meaning, a man who is surrounded by adoring young women. When he doesn't get what he wants he was tantrums like a spoiled toddler. Harron's genius (aided by a charismatic performance from Matt Smith) is to make these endearing. When we are laughing at Charlie's expense we are also being drawn into that warm and happy feeling that keeps the Family together. A spell is cast and recognising his bullshit doesn't altogether mitigate its effects.

Leslie recognises his bullshit, at first. even after she's settled into the commune life, sudden pronouncements like "I've decided that women should not carry money" give her pause for thought. The trouble is that she's been raised, as many girls still are today, to think that she must be the one at fault when things don't seem to make sense. It quickly becomes apparent that the more acolytes Charlie has, the harder it is for individuals to give credence to their own doubts. What's more, being part of the Family is fun. Although Charlie doles out sexual favours from the women to anyone he wants to impress and insists that they be available to the men at all times, there is a degree of sexual freedom in the commune compared to the still rather staid society from which they have emerged, and Leslie feels loved. She's continually told that she's beautiful. By contrast, a woman who calls Charlie out is subjected to an uninspired string of invective that makes him sound like an angry 12-year-old in a Twitter spat.

Murray, best known for playing Gilly in Game Of Thrones, is extraordinary in the lead, exuding a sweetness that reminds one of the young Chloë Sevigny. The openness, the vulnerability of her performance gives the viewer full access to Leslie's uncertainty, the weight of her anxiety she feels and the bright moments of joy she experiences as part of the Family. It's this that carries us with her when the story turns in a very dark direction. Almost everybody wants, on some level, to fit in. it seems natural that Leslie would - even when she's told to stab someone. After all, isn't this necessary, part of the plan? And yet there's an edge to Murray's work that makes us wonder if this shy young woman is, on another level, conscious all along of the horror of it all.

Could it all have been different? How small a thing might have made the difference? Guinevere Turner's script holds this possibility tantalisingly close. There's remarkable cinematography by Crille Forsberg that affords us glimpses of the sublime, takes us through dark, nightmarish landscapes on the brink of destruction and makes the homes where the killings eventually took place look agonisingly ordinary. This is a stunning piece of American cinema that draws on the events in California to talk about the death of an era, to foreshadow a nation's loss of hope. Which is better: to be happy, or to understand? Charlie Says is the finest film of the year so far and come awards season it will be a tough one to beat.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2019
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Charlie Says packshot
Three women whose death sentences for the Manson murder case were commuted to life are taught by a graduate student, who witnesses their transformation.

Director: Mary Harron

Writer: Guinevere Turner, Karlene Faith, Ed Sanders

Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Matt Smith, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Hannah Murray, Kimmy Shields, Sosie Bacon, Chace Crawford, Grace Van Dien, Marianne Rendón, Bridger Zadina, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Sol Rodriguez

Year: 2018

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: US


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