Years after the shocking murders that made the name Charles Manson synonymous with pure evil. The three women who killed for him—Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón)—remain under the spell of the infamous cult leader (Matt Smith).
Confined to an isolated cellblock in a California penitentiary, the trio seems destined to live out the rest of their lives under the delusion that their crimes were part of a cosmic plan—until empathetic graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever) is enlisted to rehabilitate them. Convinced the prisoners are not the inhuman monsters the world believes them to be, Karlene begins the arduous process of breaking down Manson’s psychological barriers.
What disappoints most about Charlie Says is how little it has to say or how little it showcases this side to the well-known story. The lack of emotional connection is rife throughout the film as we build up to an important emotional thought, only for it to blow grimly away every time. We see how Manson and his cult would break down new recruits to bring them into their world, and we witness the very one-sided dynamic he has with everyone, but there is never a push when we return to the prison of how these memories truly affect the three women.
Instead of focusing on what caused the women to be in a position for Manson to take advantage of them, and then to feel for them as they get lost in his charm. We view everything via Leslies first day at the ranch, to the night of the murders. So nothing new is learned and instead, it is cemented how they were simply used as simple tools by Charlie. In this case however their story and attempted rehabilitation seems to be an excuse to continually get back to Charlie and the ranch.
This mistake is a costly one for the Charlie Says as it is a film that does start off well and bring some intrigue, but, the more we go back, the more we lose focus on the three women. It is a shame as seeing them in prison trying to work out what happened and how that affected them and influenced them to murder is where the film is at its best.
Instead, we bounce straight back to Charlie, and we lose all feelings for the women when it becomes pretty clear that they were simply young girls who wanted to be loved and protected and simply found the worst person who was willing to give them that. The film’s potency is lost as it uses the ranch as exposition dumps (and considering how many times we return to the ranch, this soon becomes very tiresome). Doing this almost trivialises the emotional and psychological abuse it took to get the women there, and Charlie Says struggles to recover after that realisation hits the audience.
With an abundance of actors having portrayed Manson over the years, unfortunately, Smith is one of the least convincing. His performance feels as if it was influenced by other performances and not from the man’s countless amount of footage. Manson was plainly a charismatic yet angry man, and Smith instead has him being too domineering, partly caused by his sheer size compared to Manson himself. Manson was a small man who didn’t present a threat to any of the women until his mood changed. Here Smith never stops having that ominous feel as he towers over almost everyone and as bad as it is to say, he distracts rather than enhances.
The paper-thin script does little for Charlie Says as it becomes oversimplified to gets its self-evident point across that you can see the ensemble struggle to make more out of the piece. This is such a shame as there is so much potential in this story that you could easily make a film about these women and their discussions without having to so heavily venture back to Charlie. He is used as a crux as if Harron didn’t trust that the three would be compelling enough to carry the picture. By not giving the audience anything new to the story, they are at times left twiddling their thumbs as we limb to the end.
While everything looks the part, Charlie Says lacks the substance to keep itself moving and when the script has so little depth to it, the whole movie struggles and becomes a laboured piece. A disappointing film that missed its chance of saying something important.
Signature Entertainment presents Charlie Says on Amazon Prime Video 2nd April.
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