Jason Arment reviews Charlie Says, a film derived from the books The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion and The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten. (IFC Films)
When I saw Charlie Says, I knew very little about Charles Manson or the killings he orchestrated. I’m not one of the people who weirdly obsess over serial killers, mass murderers, or cult leaders. When I become interested in their tales, it’s usually due to a skilled narrator presenting them dynamically enough that I can’t help it. I think Ted Bundy only got as far as he did due to the ineptitude of law enforcement and the internet not existing. When murderers get murdered, I don’t cry, no matter if it’s a state-sanctioned murderer or otherwise. I have compassion for civilians, and loath those who prey on them.
So, I sat down to view Charlie Says without any feelings of excitement, or even curiosity. I was simply there to watch the film and enjoy whatever it elicited.
Charles Manson was portrayed as a malignant narcissist turned cult leader, a man with no more maturity or nuance than a high schooler. His judgements and estimations of the world and people around him are formulaic at best, and, of course, always favor him as infallible. Manson was at no point sympathetic, and we learn little of his past. Instead, the audience has a view into a very specific time in Manson’s troubled life.
The audience surveys the people who had once been Manson’s harem as they start to break free of his influence in prison, and that’s where it touches on the human condition—what belief is, and how it can be corrupted.
The film does a great job of fleshing out his insane racial ideas, old-school white supremacy of that era. Manson couldn’t have been further from a criminal mastermind, and throughout the movie illustrates his incompetence in nearly all matters while leading his cult of brainwashed misfits, outcasts, and losers. Everyone in their goof troop is weak of mind, including Manson, who throws himself into delusions of grandeur.
Is Charlie Says more than just an exploration of a bunch of acid freaks living in, and off, society’s refuse? Absolutely. The women the film features make the movie, the same way they made Manson. The audience surveys the people who had once been Manson’s harem as they start to break free of his influence in prison, and that’s where it touches on the human condition—what belief is, and how it can be corrupted.