Charlie Says (2019) by Mary Harron
Review by Logan Kenny
Empathy is fucking hard. It is difficult to live your life as someone who’s highly susceptible to empathising with people. You feel their pain like it’s yours; you see little glimmers of melancholy and humanity in beings who do not deserve that compassion. Sometimes our brains shut off from the first instance we hear of something. It becomes almost impossible to navigate ourselves out of the hole of our first impressions, learning to try and understand possible reasons or engage with the cruelties they’re facing. In my own life, I’ve become closed off to certain types of people. Reading the hate of bigots and racists regularly has left me with a callous approach, which I stand by. There are a lot of people struggling and I find it difficult to care about the reasons why someone has decided to inflict hate onto others at this point. However, it’s also difficult to fully commit yourself to the the process of attempting to completely understand why someone committed the actions they did – truly trying to care from their perspective even if it seems like the wrong thing to do. The value that comes from empathising with them is not necessarily a moral one but a scientific one. The effect that someone preying on the vulnerable – utilising religious language and grandiosity to persuade and pervert the minds of young people to commit countless atrocities – is something that should be confronted and dealt with. It is easy to resort to just sheer tasteless provocation when examining the people that murdered innocent human beings.
Charlie Says is all about the difficulty of pushing past the notions of apathy that we’re used to – the overwhelming toll it takes to reckon directly with the bloodshed of the past. The women of the Manson cult are not portrayed as monsters; for the majority of the film, they are naive, thoughtful, almost unaware of what they’ve done. The psychological toll of their brainwashing has culminated in them not really realising the level of pain that they’ve helped cause to others. Mary Harron treats them as criminals who took lives, but is more interested in viewing them sympathetically, as the victims of a man who took advantage of their trauma and loneliness. The film switches between the the three women participating in a psychological study with a therapist and memories of their times with Charles Manson.
The flashbacks to Manson are the most conventional aspects of the film, following a routine and scene-by-scene structure that you’ve likely seen before. Harron is less interested in subverting the expectations presented by the presence of the Manson cult than she is at ensuring the audience understands the crushing claustrophobia of being in this sphere. She is all about the internal emotional turmoil that the women go through, and is certain to focus more on their expressions than she is on Manson’s apocalyptic sermons. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, providing the audience with an internalisation of what it’s like to suffer under a notorious cult leader while being careful to not shift the focus to the charismatic personality. While there are individual moments where it runs the risk of worry, Manson is spared any redeeming qualities or acts of kindness to humanise him which does a lot of work in making these scenes satisfyingly empathetic.
The way memories come into play are important. The descent of Manson and their experiences into hell are not necessarily played linearly, the film is instead about the grasping and reshaping of memories that are no longer what you expect them to be. Quite a bit of Charlie Says is therapeutic work that gives these women new perspectives on the experiences they thought were certain. Finding new horrors in formerly innocent words, discovering patterns in initially distinct experiences and eventually coming to the unseen conclusion that they killed people for no greater purpose. There was no divination in death. This is one of the only films in recent memory to truly understand the heartbreak and guttural feeling of despair that comes from recognizing your reality isn’t what you assumed it was, and that the things you’ve been blocking out are impossible to hide forever. The empathy that Harron has for these people makes the moments that they realise the full extent of what they’ve done to others heartbreaking. These girls were unlucky, susceptible people whose naivety and fear of isolation were taken advantage of by a predator. They could have been anyone.
The portrayal of the Manson Girls in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is vindictive and cruel. His historical revisionism treats Charles Manson himself as an afterthought, framing his one scene so absently that him being in the film at all is easily overlooked. The women who we see as victims here are nothing more than disposable bodies for retribution there, having their faces battered to a pulp, their insides torn to shreds by a dog’s incisors, having their remains charred by a flamethrower while their manipulator continues to live. Tarantino’s empathy and critical thinking is limited by his bloodlust and his cemented idea of the narrative. Charlie Says never takes the easiest route of satisfaction through violence; there is no solace for anyone in this picture. When these women know what they’ve done, their eyes never look the same again. The film goes through their title cards and shows that the remainder of their lives were tainted by regret, shame and despair for their involvement, while their torturer received adoration from certain types until his death in 2017. Art and culture will forever make them the enemies; history will always be written in black and white. It is never as easy as it seems at first glance.
Charlie Says is far from a perfect movie. Matt Smith as Manson lacks the particular venom to properly convince as this diabolical preacher, although he nails the seediness and pathetic undercurrent that holds the man together. There are moments of preachiness and limited writing, segments that take the easy answers for a few minutes (particularly involving the racism that the women picked up from Manson). However, in the end, it gets the crucial stuff fundamentally right. It gives three women two hours to have their stories told, to be treated like human beings after five decades of monsterhood. They have suffered for what they have done, physically and emotionally, and it’s up to you whether or not you think that was warranted. To me, the commitment to not allowing history to be totally dominated by revisionists is bold and somewhat beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you forgive them or not. It’s not your situation to forgive.