Defiant Screen Entertainment, Rated MA
A glut of movies were produced and released leading up to this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Tate/LaBianca murders by the ‘Manson Family’ (if not the now-late Charles Manson himself), from the sublime (Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) to the ridiculous (The Haunting Of Sharon Tate, starring Hilary Duff). Director Mary Harron’s offering got rather lost in the commercial crush, which is a shame because it features some strong work by an idiosyncratic cast and allows us to understand (almost) the mindsets of the three main ‘Manson Girls’, with Charlie a secondary figure seen only in flashback and played by former Doctor Who Matt Smith in a creepily charismatic performance.
Drawn from Karlene Faith’s memoir The Family, this has her (played by Merritt Wever) as a grad student somewhere in the ‘70s assigned to work with the Manson Girls, who all, somewhat improbably, are housed in a wing of a Californian prison in adjoining cells, meaning they can talk, sing and wax nostalgic about Charlie together. Karlene unites and cautiously attempts to deprogram them, and this leads to their rattled memories of their time with Charlie and Co. on the Spahn Ranch before he sent them out to kill.
Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) contribute but this is mostly about Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), who comes closest to breaking out (or down) and truly and horribly realising what Charlie had done to her. And Smith (who facially doesn’t look much like Charlie but does capture his insidious personality perfectly) doesn’t overshadow the female cast and is never seen in the then-present-day – but, for the girls, he’s always there.
Director Harron, who’s made movies about people real (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page) and famously unreal (American Psycho), is here joined by her regular screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and the result doesn’t capture the dread and craziness of, say, the original 1976 TV series Helter Skelter, but then this is about what happened after the Manson murders, and how the perpetrators eventually faced what they had done. Or tried desperately not to.