In this year’s April 29th issue of the New Yorker, Guinevere Turner relates stories about her childhood in a cult. She writes, “ I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media.” Turner, the screenwriter of “Charlie Says,” an original new film about the 1969 Manson Family murders, points out that cults and other longstanding belief systems are not all that disparate. “Sheer popularity and longevity can do a lot to render odd convictions reassuringly familiar.”
The film’s plot centers around the characters of Leslie Van Houten, (Hannah Murray) Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins. (Marianne Rendón). The script is partially based on the book by Karlene Faith, (Merritt-Weaver) the graduate student who taught the three women using a jarring women’s lib curriculum during their early years in prison.
Thankfully, this is not a film that traffics in nostalgically valorizing Charles Manson as a charismatic villain we secretly love. This Charlie, played by a spot-on Matt Smith, is an insecure, impotent, embarrassing bully. Skilled at nothing but textbook maneuvers of manipulation and abuse, he spends the movie sulking and guarding the reality that he has no real power. We see the women desperate to make him infallible, filling in and covering for him at every turn. It is their work, their bodies, and their relationships that carry the “family.”
“Charlie Says” is hard to endure. Not because of the murders–which Harron handles unflinchingly, yet without gratuitous gore–but because of the day-to’day abuse at Spawn Ranch. The family’s domestic scenes spout some truly liberating language, while simultaneously subjecting the women to constant indignities and daily violence. Turner’s nuanced script intimately reveals the emotional trap of a utopia-gone-awry.
What is most satisfying about this film is how it straddles a complex line, neither depicting these women as monsters, nor simply as brainwashed extensions of Charlie—they are presented instead as both victims and agents. The story builds their crimes slowly from the culture of abuse, which all the more sinister because it feeds off of a dynamic of healing. “It’s all of the small decisions,” Guinevere Turner explains in an interview with The LA Beat, “that make us do whatever we do.”
In effect, every cult(ure) relies on mountains of small concessions, that, when piled together, can seem monstrous. Who among us does not participate in the most horrendous of crimes by simply using a smart phone, wearing a diamond, or swiping a bank card? Do we really believe the lies that our respective “daddies” have told us to make these acts seem innocuous?
Yes and no. We believe because of a coercive culture. And because we fear losing our friends, family, and place in this reality too much to say “no” to the persistent demands for little compromises of morality. True, Chase Bank or the superintendent, or your boss or your mother may not ask you to stab a stranger sixteen times, but what have we participated in and allowed, knowing full well all that we do about global labor, the racial wealth gap, and American foreign policy?
The harrowing truth of this story is twofold, on the one hand it historically shifted public perception of a country that was never wholesome, but had played the part. For middle America, the Manson murders burst a bubble. Turner says flat out, “The only reason we are still talking about them is because they were white, middle-class women.”
Perhaps more chilling, however, is that the story asks that we reevaluate our own brainwashing- not only in how these stories of our country have been told but also in terms of what we have been willing to allow, here and now. If this is the era of accountability— and I believe it is— then “Charlie Says” is the first mainstream release for our time.
Charlie Says is available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.