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Charlie's Angels of Death

IFC Films

Charlie Says (2019)

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner explore the Manson family lore through a couple of literary entry points, namely “The Family” by Ed Sanders and “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten” by Karlene Faith, who as a graduate student worked in the California Institute for Women with Manson women Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ms. Van Houten. Having grown up in a cult herself, Ms. Turner’s firsthand experience also promises to imbue the film with insight.

As Charles Manson, Matt Smith is decidedly devoid of the charisma requisite for cult leaders. It’s never quite clear whether Ms. Harron and Ms. Turner purposely depict him this way, what with a subplot tracking Manson’s pathetic failed attempt at pop stardom by arranging for a record producer’s visit to the ramshackle Spahn Movie Ranch. Indeed, to us bystanders, this makeshift family seems every bit as preposterous as the one starring in “Sister Wives.” But we still need to see from the Manson women’s perspectives how they fell under his spell.

In fact, Manson is hardly present here, leaving the twisted sisterhood to fend for itself for long stretches of time. As Faith (Merritt Wever) gradually deprograms “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendón), “Katie” Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray) in the women’s correctional facility, Ms. Harron and Ms. Turner posit their ordeal as the loss of innocence. But even as such, the filmmakers never fully convey the fervor that led the Manson women astray, as Peter Jackson did with his similarly true-crime “Heavenly Creatures.”


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