Review: A feminist take on the Manson family murders in ‘Charlie Says’

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Director Mary Harron tackles the tale of arguably the most famous American psycho of all time with the Manson family movie “Charlie Says.” Written by Harron’s longtime collaborator, Guinevere Turner, the film is based in part on Ed Sanders’ 1972 book “The Family,” and takes as its narrative spine the story of prison activist Karlene Faith, who wrote the book “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult.”

Merritt Wever portrays Faith as she educates Manson girls Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) during the early days of their incarceration. Grad student Karlene relies on deep wells of empathy and her feminist beliefs to help the women emerge from Manson’s brainwashing.

“Charlie Says” is a chilling depiction of the psychopathic seduction and abuse that Charles Manson leveled against his “family,” made up mostly of young, vulnerable women whom he sexually exploited and pressed into labor in service of his deranged demands. Matt Smith portrays “Charlie” as the love-bombing and increasingly violent guru, who offered crumbs of love to women starved for it.


Harron’s film doesn’t focus on the murder victims but rather the perpetrators — asking how they could have done this. The “why” is simply Charlie’s obsession with fame, power and his stoking of a fantastical race war. But that’s not what this film is about. Rather, “Charlie Says” is a fascinating and feminist exploration of Manson’s first victims: the girls themselves.


‘Charlie Says’

Rated: R, for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: Starts May 10 in limited release