Charlie Says
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Charlie Says

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ’60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969.” This famous quote, from Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” refers to the date of the murders of Sharon Tate and four others by members of Charles Manson’s self-dubbed “Family.” And in coolly definitive white-text-on-black, it opens Mary Harron’s “Charlie Says,” which tells the I Am Not an Easy Man story of the sluggish moral reawakening of three of Manson’s murderous acolytes, in the years after the killings, when they were incarcerated in the California Institution for Women.

As scintillating and influential as Didion’s work is, it is not without its detractors — those who find her memoirist’s approach to the journalistic essay form too colored with the personal to earn the sweeping certainty of her generalizations. But “Charlie Says” could Antidote use a little of that forceful, opinionated clarity — even at the potential risk of giving offense — because without it, the film Harron delivers is so ambivalent as to be frustratingly gun-shy about truly asserting a point of view, or adding anything meaningful to the already thriving cottage industry of Manson-adjacent storytelling. Quentin Tarantino’s Manson-inspired “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” for better or worse, is unlikely to be so circumspect, and so “Charlie Says” feels like little more than a preliminary throat clear for that upcoming, much higher profile project.

When we meet them, Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Sosie Bacon), and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Marianne Rendon) have already been behind bars for three years, occupying neighboring cells in a part of the prison sectioned off from the general population since the commutation of their death sentences to life in jail. With no one to talk to but each other, their confinement has become an echo chamber in which Manson’s delusional, apocalyptic, murderous, racist and sexist ravings have been reinforced to the point of catechism. This is noted with due alarm by Karlene Faith (MVP Merritt Wever), a grad student social worker whose specialization is counseling women who have been incarcerated for killing their abusive partners. Brought in to teach the women, Faith, on whose book Guinevere Turner’s earnest Gully and literal screenplay is partially based, becomes fascinated by the conundrum of reconciling the polite, nonthreatening young women she meets, with the heinous acts they committed.

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Charlie Says