The Movie Waffler New Release Review (DVD/VOD) - CHARLIE SAYS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review (DVD/VOD) - CHARLIE SAYS

charlie says review
A teenage runaway joins up with the Manson family.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Mary Harron

Starring: Matt Smith, Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendon, Chace Crawford, Suki Waterhouse, Annabeth Gish

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Let’s get something clear: that Charles Manson was a piece of fucking shit. A bully, a wimp and a coward to boot. Hardly headline news I know, but to certain people this twat is somehow taken seriously as a beloved icon of counterculture. Jesus wept. And while it would be lovely to say that the world is a richer place since the prick finally succumbed to colon cancer two years ago, the fact of the matter is that, long after his gutless crimes, Charles Manson is still with us. This week Vogue’s Insta made a highly unfortunate (cf. calculated) reference to the smelly goon somehow inspiring this summer’s fashion wear (?). And, alongside the juvenile reverence afforded by American rock, the ample merchandise (google ‘Charles Manson t shirt’ and balk at the results: can you imagine wearing, say, a Fred West print and getting away with that shit?), there’s a renewed cinematic canon concerning Manson. Last month (or so) offered The Haunting of Sharon Tate, there’s the forthcoming Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and this week brings Charlie Says. The latter, however, does open with a quote by Joan Didion (an automatic gold star), and the film itself is written/directed by the ace Guinevere Turner/Mary Harron duo, a team whose work (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) is never less than interesting and thoughtful. So, let’s keep an open mind as we take a closer look…

charlie says review

Turner/Harron’s film takes the corner of the female family members, those mainly middle-class girls lured in all their naรฏve optimism by the dangerous, countercultural romance of the Death Valley scene. Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), is our lead in, a wide eyed, pie eyed kid enamoured of the freak flag. And here’s the thing: you can see why. The popular approximation of the Sixties, with California as the HQ of sun-kissed groove itself, brings to mind a cresting silver frequency: tune in or you’re out, daddy-o.  Music, fashion and popular culture transmogrified into new and exciting meanings, while the political became the personal. Perhaps it seemed as if anything could happen. For a kid like Van Houten, whose only reprieve from her deeply boring life was occasional and terrible misfortune (a forced late term abortion), how couldn’t the idea of living on a ranch with a bunch of other kids, shagging and smoking and listening to music as you waited for the revolution, seem appealing? And so, there we find her, along with a few other (interchangeable, except for Suki Waterhouse with her amazing eyebrows) girls, set up as part of Manson’s desert rat family. Everyone wants to belong, after all.

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It does seem happening, though. Dennis Wilson (the fittest Beach Boy) pops by to hang out, there’s all sorts of psychedelics in the sun, and, you know, it feels like a community. To get food the gang drive into town and forage the bins of Hollywood eateries, flirting with any busboys who give them sass. Far out, indeed. And at the head of it all is this old guy (30), who’s articulate, erudite and knows where the drugs are: a father figure for these teens looking for a pacesetter in this dawning Age of Aquarius. Fairs fair, Matt Smith’s Manson is an electric performance. I can’t remember who said Matt looks like a Carlos Ezquerra drawing come to life, but they were bang on. He’s as weird and compelling as ever here, seemingly carving out a nice mid-career niche playing charismatic murderers (Patrick Bateman on stage - note the Turner/Harron synchronicity - and, um, Skynet in Genisys). The blissed-out children who make up the family understandably see Manson as a poet, but Turner and Harron give us a different perspective. Manson is a specifically Sixties villain, a West-American Psycho, chasing the fame and establishment kudos that he at once excoriates to his followers but which he so clearly desired for himself. There’s the irony of the Family’s hide-out, which is an out of service film set; the metaphorical aspects of which escape Manson as he desperately woos talent scout Terry Melcher in an impromptu musical concert so cringeworthy it would make you darkly giggle if you didn’t know that this story is going to end with the death of nine people, one of them a pregnant woman.

The film doesn’t allow us to forget this, as we cut back and forth between the summer of ’69 and our gormless girls caught and stuck in prison. The film’s representation of Leslie, Sadie et al’s porridge is refreshingly clear eyed. There is no sentiment involved in depicting these brain-washed, damaged YAs. In fact, there is a sly suggestion that the burgeoning women’s lib movement’s appropriation of the Manson-girls-as-victim-of-toxic-patriarchy is in its own way as exploitative as what happened in the desert. No dice ladies: within the diegesis of this film at least, the family are unrepentant, and when sentences are communicated, we hear one girl simply bemoan that "We’ll never see Charlie again."

charlie says review

Meanwhile, kicked to the curb by the entertainment industry, Manson turns to psychedelics and The Beatles (which isn’t even the best album in The Beatles, etc), giving his followers an ersatz fan-theory reading of what came to be known as The White Album with all the urgent wank-energy of a bedroom Redditor with nothing much else on and a deadly grudge against humanity. Imagine thinking that a song about a slide is a coded message about a race war, ffs. The film implies that Manson’s ensuing murder sprees were a direct result of his dismissal by the entertainment industry, which essentially makes him a more homicidal equivalent of a rejected first round X-Factor contestant. What an absolute nob we think; fearsome of the fragility of our social contracts, the gullibility of kids on drugs, and dreading what will inevitably come during the film’s final reel (the murders are, mercifully, shot with discretion). In the same collection Turner/Harron took their quote from, regarding the sixties Joan Didion writes that "we were the last generation to identify with adults." It’s a typically shrewd observation from this authentic West Coast visionary, one that is borne out by the icky adolescent veneration of this chucklehead. That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting a Manson t shirt following Charlie Says.

Charlie Says is on VOD/DVD now.

2019 movie reviews