Slowly, you see that women in the group, though they worship Manson, are abused by him. Men eat before the women, always. Women aren’t allowed to carry money. Women who talk back to Manson or do not otherwise adore him are physically assaulted or cast out of the group. And then there are the murders which Harron, who as director of movies like American Psycho and the excellent TV drama Alias Grace excels at artful, restrained violence, keeps minimal but no less disturbing. Everyone is really high when they’re murdering these people, one of whom is Sharon Tate, shown briefly begging for the life of her child. It is a horrible, brief scene, and yet torturously inevitable.

You get the picture, because the picture has been made again and again. The problem with Charlie Says is that it feels, at times, like the movie equivalent of reading aloud the Wikipedia page for the Manson family. I’m not sure that’s entirely Harron’s fault, because despite the over-sensationalized draw of a man like Charles Manson, she’s ultimately working with simplistic material. Charles Manson and his following are so ingrained in pop culture that they’ve essentially become stereotypes of what a murderous hippie-cult might look like. Matt Smith does a fine job at playing Manson, but he also looks ridiculous in his shaggy wig and beard and sounds ridiculous because the source himself was also ridiculous. As culture has continually rendered these real people and this 1969 snapshot in history into costumed characters, every new incarnation of Charles Manson sort of just looks like a costumed character. These people don’t feel real because their actions were almost unreal to begin with, but also because people can’t stop reanimating them on-screen. Is it even possible to make a good movie about Charles Manson? I’m not sure it is anymore.

If the movie has one strong stance, it’s in its portrayal of Leslie Van Houten, who is still seeking parole. Van Houten was only 19 at the time of the Tate murders and says she stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 14 times, though the film supports Van Houten’s initial insistence that she only stabbed LaBianca after she was already dead. As the movie draws on Karlene Faith’s work rehabilitating incarcerated women, the movie also makes the case that Van Houten has been fully dedicated to repenting for her crime, and raises the question of whether women like the Manson girls deserved to be imprisoned for life. But it’s not quite enough to warrant a movie like this, an unfortunate, boring take on a crime that’s been recounted numerous times. It’s no fun at all to see what was once a horrific crime fail to shock or entrance any longer, but that’s what happens when pop culture continues to revive the Manson spectacle for entertainment.


Correction: An original version of this post incorrectly identified Nxivm’s leader as Kenneth Raniere. It is Keith Raniere. Jezebel regrets the error.