Tuesday 30 July 2019


 American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron's latest film follows the journey of Leslie Van Houten from disillusioned teenage runaway to key member of the Manson Family, depicting the infamous murders of July and August 1969 and her later incarceration.

When Quentin Tarantino's latest, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was first announced, the biggest outcry was that given the backdrop of the film was the Manson Family murders, the supposedly accidental poor timing of the release date (50 years to the day of the infamous murders) quickly saw a shift in date occur, but still within weeks of the anniversary. Well, also released almost 50 years to the date of the Manson Family murders is Mary Harron's Charlie Says, also depicting the aforementioned murders, but from the point of view of the murderers. To be fair to this film (and to Tarantino's), it has been 50 years so of course there is going to be an increased interest in the subject, and as we'll get to the murders here are treated with a modicum of respect.

Harron's film's focus is on one of the members of Manson's family, Leslie Van Houten, played here by Skins and Game of Thrones actress Hannah Murray. A disillusioned drifter who found her way onto Manson's ranch by hitching a ride with some of his family members, she is portrayed as an innocent in the world, finding guidance and a place to belong in Charlie's world. Murray, playing a character roughly ten years younger than her age, has an eternally youthful face, and with that a childlike innocence, rightly or wrongly, automatically aligns with her character. Murray is a good actress and is the backbone to this film, but her casting comes with the danger that the culpability of the real Leslie gets diminished to a degree. The women who followed Charles Manson have always been categorised as weak minded sociopaths, committing deadly crimes on his command, so there is a danger that a film about their lives would humanise them and detract from the murders they committed. What's admirable about Harron's film is that it tries to balance this by offering a new vantage point, focussing as much on their jail term after the murders as their time in the lead up to August 1969.

In these post murder scenes the film divides its focus between Murray's Leslie and teacher Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), assigned to provide college courses to the three women excluded from the general population and confined to the Special Security Unit of the prison. As an outsider looking in, Faith tries to understand why these women committed such horrific crimes, and why Manson is able to keep his grip on them even after all contact is broken, the women collectively shaving their heads after Manson "spoke" to them in their cells. It's a strange, not altogether fluid transition to have our audience focus shift from Leslie in the pre-murder scenes to Karlene in the post-murder scenes, but Wever is as solid a performer as always and delivers a tonic to the hippie madness of almost every other character. 

The focus of the film never shifts to Manson, keeping him pontificating to his followers and playing his guitar in his long desired wish to be a famous musician. The film explores this side of his persona through his association with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson (an uncanny James Trevanna-Brown), a frequent visitor to Manson's ranch who negotiated the use of one of Manson's songs on a Beach Boys album. Manson is played quite convincingly by Matt Smith, the one time Dr Who and star of The Crown, still looking for that role that will provide his Hollywood breakthrough. Smith has always provided committed performances, and he's no different here. Although the film never puts him front and centre, Manson exists as a spectre, moving from cool hippie beatnik to a violent manipulator of women, talking of their "tiny female brains" and plotting his Helter Skelter race war. Smith is at times charming and terrifying, and provides the film with a truly loathsome Manson, which for all the interest in the members of his 'family' is the real draw for this film.

The Manson Family murders are, for want of a better word, legendary, and Harron's film walks a fine line between glamourising the murders and providing a thrilling, entertaining story. The Tate/LaBianca murders are shockingly realised, but via short sharp shocks of violence and shots of the aftermath that, barring one scene, avoid the graphic splatter of blood.

A curiously structured film that is worth seeing for its core performances, if Tarantino's film has you wanting to know more about the Manson Family murders and those involved in the dark side of a Hollywood legend, this film is a thoughtful, unsensational attempt to deliver that.



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