The Other Charles Manson Movie Has a Lot to Say

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” marked the 50th anniversary of the grisly Manson murders with considerable panache. But it’s the other Manson movie released this year, the less ballyhooed independent “Charlie Says,” that feels timelier.

Directed by Mary Harron from a script by Guinevere Turner, “Charlie Says” surpasses “Once Upon a Time” in evoking the New Age fantasies and apocalyptic mentality of the late 1960s, partly because it plumbs the mind-set of Manson’s female followers.

Like Harron’s first feature, “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), a movie about Warhol’s would-be assassin Valerie Solanas, “Charlie Says” is a scrupulous work of pop scholarship resurrecting a larger-than-life character from the lunatic fringe of the ’60s counterculture, along with an era-defining celebrity crime.

As she did with her Warhol film, Harron starts “Charlie Says” with the aftermath of a sensational attack. Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), renamed Lulu by Manson, who routinely rechristened his acolytes, is introduced showering off the blood of a couple she had just met and helped to kill. Her three other accomplices from the so-called Manson family, meanwhile, scarf down food in the kitchen of the murdered couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Ditching their bloodstained clothes, they hitch a ride back to the family hide-out at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a sometime film set in outer Los Angeles. In a conversation about music with a hippie who picks them up, Lulu declares that “everything is a put-on.” She may be defending the eccentric performer Tiny Tim, but her retort articulates the disassociation that Manson espoused. “Nothing is real,” as the Beatles put it. “Nothing to get hung about.”

Fast forward three years: Lulu, Sadie (Marianne Rendón) and Katie (Sosie Bacon) serenade one another with Charlie’s songs in the maximum-security prison where they occupy a separate wing. Blissfully brainwashed, they quote Manson’s words at every opportunity. Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a grad student who teaches at the prison, is assigned to work with them. (The movie is drawn partly from her book “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten.”) She begins by giving them copies of the 1970 feminist anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful” only to discover that Manson forbade his “girls” to read anything other than the Bible.

Shuttling back and forth between prison and the ranch, “Charlie Says” is a battle of rival worldviews — Manson’s indoctrination of the young women he recruited is juxtaposed with Faith’s dogged attempt to “give them back themselves.” Matt Smith’s Charlie “isn’t especially attractive and doesn’t read as remotely charismatic,” Manohla Dargis noted in her New York Times review. Yet, there’s a rainbow over the ranch when Leslie (not yet named Lulu) first arrives, as if to suggest that charisma is in the eye of the beholder.

The filmmakers Harron and Turner both experienced commune culture. (Turner, brought up in the Boston-based Fort Hill Community, has written about her childhood; in her youth, Harron lived briefly in the East Village “film kibbutz,” Total Impact.) Both understand the gravitational force of a designated leader and a shared worldview, as well as the heady conviction of belonging to an elect.

Manson’s songs may have been doggerel, but he was a master of manipulative hippie jargon. (Charlie says …) If his cult was less organized than Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, his megalomania was no less seductive — the ego-obliteration that Manson promoted went down just as easily as Jones’s cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Because Manson’s appeal is presented as a manifestation of his followers’ insecurities, “Charlie Says” feels as relevant as any American movie released this year. Depicting the spell Manson cast over his followers, Harron and Turner have much to say about the #MeToo movement, white nationalism, the power of denial, and the ability of a gifted con man to exploit the vulnerable.

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” has a blatantly counterfactual finale — the right people die! “Charlie Says,” too, has a counterfactual ending. But unlike Tarantino’s film, Harron’s makes clear that there is no escaping history. Faith, the prison therapist, knows that should she succeed in freeing Lulu, Sadie and Katie from their illusions, they will be left with the horror of what they did.

Harron began her professional career writing for the fanzine Punk. All but one of her films have journalistic hooks, most lend themselves to cult appreciation, and while she does not identify as a feminist, her movies all raise feminist issues.

“I Shot Andy Warhol,” which concerns a murderous man hater, is an obvious example. “American Psycho” (2000), adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’s openly misogynist best seller, turns the book on its head, transforming the notion of a status-obsessed yuppie serial sex killer into the anti-masculinist satire Ellis claims it always was. (The movie was controversial; Harron defended its violence in a Times essay.) Lighter in tone, although not without its dark side, “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2006) portrays the enigmatic 1950s pinup and bondage queen as sweet-natured and God-fearing, and impervious to exploitation.

The most conventional of Harron’s movies, “The Moth Diaries” (2011), a young-adult story set in a girls’ boarding school, enriches vampire lore by integrating teen suicide, self-cutting and anorexia. In her Times review, Jeannette Catsoulis called the movie a “Gothic stew of satisfying kinkiness if unsatisfying resolution.” What’s even more unsatisfying is the reality that a filmmaker as thoughtful, lively and talented as Harron has made only five features in 23 years.

“Charlie Says” currently streams on Amazon Prime, Vudu and iTunes. “American Psycho,” “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “The Moth Diaries” on these sites and more; “I Shot Andy Warhol” unfortunately not at all. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will be widely available on Nov. 26.

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