Friday, May 10, 2019

Tribeca with Abe: Charlie Says

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which ran April 24th – May 5th.

Charlie Says
Directed by Mary Harron
Spotlight Narrative

Charlie Manson is a notorious figure from recent history, one whose legacy helped to define and terrorize a generation. The man himself, who died in prison in 2017, was notable mostly for his ability to attract devoted followers who listened to his every word, hypnotized by his ideas and compelled to do terrible things in his name. Understanding what it was that made them listen to him and commit horrific murders simply because he said so is a difficult task, yet it’s one that this film attempts to tackle through its portrait of three imprisoned cult members.

Leslie van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) sit in their own cell block, awaiting a death sentence that has been deemed unconstitutional and having contact only with each other and the prison staff. When a local professor, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), begins working with the girls, she gradually learns about their history and what drew them to Manson (Matt Smith). What started as a refuge from society with nothing but free love for those around them turned into something much darker and more dangerous, an infectious home for those who never felt a sense of purpose before and could now be seen as equal to everyone around them.

This film is directed by Mary Harron, best known for helming “American Psycho” in 2000, and written by the screenwriter of that film, Guinevere Turner. Though that story was fictional, it does serve as a fitting framework that suggests Harron and Turner as just the right people to bring this tale to the big screen. Through flashbacks and conversations in the prison, this film does manage to peel back the layers of its characters as they, with the help of Faith, come to realize the role they’ve played in their own lives and how they’ve lost sight of the people that they once were, individuals not subservient to a manipulative master. It is an enlightening – and highly disturbing – journey.

Murray, who starred in a previous Tribeca entry, “Bridgend,” and who appears in the ensemble on “Game of Thrones,” has a fitting affect to play the impressionable van Houten, who initially resists Manson’s commands but soon becomes his most devoted apostle. Bacon, the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is a standout among the rest of the cast, as is Wever, from “Nurse Jackie” and “The Walking Dead,” and Smith, who is well cast after his turns in “The Crown” and “Mapplethorpe.” This film is inarguably unsettling, creating a mood that makes it somewhat possible to comprehend how this cult operated and managed to usurp those within it.


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