Partly Truth, Partly Fiction: 2019 Cinema Revisits the Manson Family

By Chloe LizotteNovember 10, 2019

Partly Truth, Partly Fiction: 2019 Cinema Revisits the Manson Family
FIFTY YEARS AFTER his Family’s August 1969 murder spree, Charles Manson has been inescapable in summer fiction film releases. In theaters, there was Mary Harron’s Charlie Says and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood; on Netflix, there’s an episode of the David Fincher–created series Mindhunter; buried on VOD, there’s Daniel Farrands’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Commemorative marketing strategies begin to explain this confluence, but artists haven’t reanimated Woodstock or Neil Armstrong with the same consistency. The brutality of the Manson Family is unthinkable — perhaps uniquely compelling when confronted with the abyss of 2019 — while legible as a twisted outgrowth of the symbolic ’60s, a commune that festered into a cult of white supremacy, sexism, and delusional close-readings of the Beatles. When these filmmakers re-create, reenvision, or remix the events leading up to the murder of pregnant starlet Sharon Tate, they seek a clean thread through an unwieldy historical record — and their mental blocks can be just as telling as their final visions.

One problem that plagues the story of Manson’s Family — and even DA Vincent Bugliosi’s case against them — is the urge to reconcile the killers’ brainwashing with their agency. That these teenage runaways “could be anybody” sits disconcertingly alongside their actual deeds; John Waters grew fascinated with Manson’s followers because he was shocked to see mugshots of alienated kids who reminded him of his filmmaking troupe. Films like Helter Skelter (2004) and Manson’s Lost Girls (2016) try to circumvent this discomfort by focusing on Linda Kasabian, the prosecution’s star witness, since she only kept watch on the night of Tate’s murder. In Charlie Says, Harron — no stranger to complex pathologies after American Psycho (2000) and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) — explores the psychological toll of Manson’s abuse by centering on Leslie Van Houten, who did help kill Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Harron strives for a nuance that earlier films failed to locate; Reginald Harkema’s vapid Manson, My Name Is Evil (2009), as one example, positioned Van Houten as a fallen prom queen … from the perspective of a juror who falls in love with her.

In experiential flashbacks, we watch Charlie engineer his followers’ submission through isolation, hallucinogens, sex, and the careful curation of vulnerable adolescents. Screenwriter Guinevere Turner draws upon her childhood in a ’70s transcendentalist commune, the Lyman Family, to render the cult’s everyday dynamics. But much of the story takes place in prison in the early ’70s, with Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins taking classes in prison from feminist academic Karlene Faith. In scenes based on her memoir, Faith introduces the girls to second-wave classics like Sisterhood Is Powerful but is rattled by the hold that Manson still has on them: they sing his songs, they don’t believe in time or death, they’ve never heard of Bobby Seale but still await Charlie’s prophesied race war. In some of the most compelling sequences of the film, Faith frets over the ethics of awakening the girls to the reality of their actions, while her fellow prison educators find it distasteful to treat them as anything other than killers.

As the film adaptation moves closer to Leslie’s personal experience, it gets mired in dutiful historical reenactment, as though refraining from taking liberties with the Family's incomprehensible, horrific acts of violence. This becomes clearest in its depiction of the killings, always a delicate chapter of the story for a visual medium: show too much, it gets exploitative; address too sparingly, it feels avoidant. Modulating tone is one option — Wolves at the Door (2016) crassly drains context to reimagine Tate’s killing as a home invasion movie, while American Horror Story: Cult (2017) steeps it in dramatic irony as a parable for clearly pathetic incels, stylized with dripping-red comic book captions. Harron approaches the violence frankly to respect the crimes’ extremity; Tex Watson mutilates Leno LaBianca in an unadorned, but uncompromisingly bloody, wide angle. The sequence is built around Leslie’s climactic close-up, blood splattering her shrieking face as she stabs Rosemary’s corpse, a moment of dissociation that seals her surrender to Charlie. Amid the hyperreality of the surrounding carnage — and after a brief glimpse of the Tate murders the preceding night, out of place within the story of a Family member who wasn’t there — it’s difficult for this to register meaningfully. The fact that Leslie was driven to kill isn’t the revelation of the film; it’s everything that comes later, in the prison, when she expresses her newly emerging doubts to Patricia and Susan.

Charlie Says’s Manson (Matt Smith) raises the related difficulty of reducing a despicable person to an exegesis. Smith is mercurial, but functional; even at his most casual, he lets out a breathy chuckle that foreshadows a violent snap. As though telling the viewer what to think, he steers clear of a more convincing charisma that might seem like an endorsement. In contrast, episode five of Mindhunter’s second season, set in the late ’70s/early ’80s, frees Damon Herriman to develop his Manson through the arc of an interaction, not as a position statement. During an interview with two FBI agents from the behavioral science unit, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), Manson hops onto the back of his chair for extra height to launch into a circuitous spiel about rejecting all but the “now.” As Tench quickly escalates into an argument about abdicating responsibility for his crimes, Ford — well versed in Manson lore, and initially confident he’d have the upper hand — sits in silent awe of the figure he’s read so much about. Working that power shift, Manson hams it up by autographing Ford’s copy of Helter Skelter and asking him for his sunglasses. Ford robotically lets him keep them.

With erratic and contained gestures, Herriman talks himself into nonsensical loops, putting forth a duplicitous authenticity: instead of telling you who he is, he makes you feel like he’s letting you choose. His manipulative prowess in the scene derives a sharper menace from Manson’s real-life motivations, elucidated by the agents in earlier scenes. It makes sense to balance exposition and embodiment as Manson’s precise record begins to fade strangely with the passage of time — for one, that Spotify, often tasked with cancellation, still streams the music of a serial murderer who carved a Swastika into his forehead. In fiction, selective memory can lead to superficial caricature. In Drew Goddard’s ’70s-pulp playground Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Chris Hemsworth plays a sanitized Manson-esque figure, but ends up a vacuum who loves Russian Roulette; his evening musings on the arbitrary nature of “good” and “evil” sound like half-baked TED Talks from a Silicon Valley retreat.

While Manson’s paper trail can breed obsession with minutiae, the lingering memory of Sharon Tate is predicated on wispiness: our intimate familiarity with her death eclipses the everyday unknowability of who she might have been or become. The Haunting of Sharon Tate addresses this disparity by equating “fate” and painstaking re-creations of that senseless end. In the opening scene, a ghostly camera drifts up to 10050 Cielo Drive, discovering the corpses precisely as they were found by the police; in the most complete restaging of the Family’s invasion, drenched in magenta gel lights, everything is scripted and blocked as it was testified. The scenes suggest a checklist for true-crime obsessives, the opening point-of-view shot calling to mind YouTube/Google Maps retracings of the killers’ driving route — as if by thoroughly pursuing the paper trail, one can inhabit the unknowable, the taboo.

Director Farrands (The Amityville Murders) has explained that Haunting takes place in “purgatory,” which turns out to be the Cielo house, charged with the inevitability of what unfolded there; Tate’s (Hilary Duff) nightmarish premonitions of her death turn murder into self-fulfilling prophecy. Haunting’s synth score and Duff’s blissed-out monologue from heaven practically beg for comparisons to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Tate’s surface-level characteristics do inform an American archetype like Laura Palmer: a young, blonde paragon of goodness, frozen in a murder that entangles her with postwar darkness. The unbridgeable distance of death gives rise to a fetishistic iconography of leftover images; Laura’s prom photo floats through the town’s consciousness like fan-made clip compilations of Tate’s supporting roles. One way to grieve her inexplicable death is to compulsively revisit it from all angles, or even, in Farrand’s case, to battle it. Even though Haunting’s Sharon eventually weaponizes her visions to strike back at her killers, the retconned survivors discover their own bodies in the final scene, trapped in their cyclical demise.

Fate isn’t sacred to Tarantino, but the film-historical resonance of saving Tate is. To do so, he turns Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood into a game of audience expectations. After the opening timestamp marks February 1969, the audience only tenses for the inevitable cut to August, which makes the carefree ambience of Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) scenes seem deceptive — her dancing to Paul Revere & the Raiders, her ducking into a matinee of her film The Wrecking Crew on a whim. When Tarantino does jump forward, he stokes anticipation: a TV commercial teases the “moment you’ve all been waiting for!” as he begins going through the motions of Tate’s final well-documented meal at El Coyote. Despite his proclivities for revisionist history, Tarantino knows we expect Tate at the center of some kind of bloodshed; he’s already reminded us that she’s trained with Bruce Lee. So when his fictional duo, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), inadvertently divert the Family away from Tate, the shape of the preceding film alters considerably. An air of entrapment dissipates around Tate’s buoyancy, and instead of a cipher, she becomes a young woman living a normal, if unusually glamorous, life. This may seem at odds with a narrative bait-and-switch that could flatten her into a device, but Robbie imbues her lengthy scenes with a naturalistic vitality, understanding the uniquely cinematic power of watching someone exist — especially Tate.

When Cliff and Rick kill the killers, Tarantino formally turns back the clock of the film industry’s post-’69 evolutions. In paying stylistic tribute to ’50s and ’60s serial television, Tarantino also embraces it as a way of life: he imagines how an episode of The F.B.I. could unite not only Cliff and Rick but also the Family’s Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) in the retro phenomenon of appointment viewing. Yet the convention-bucking New Hollywood was emerging during this period, and post-Manson disillusionment would directly inspire two of Robert Towne’s landmark screenplays, for Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975, co-written with Warren Beatty) and Tate’s widower Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). By averting the murders, Cliff and Rick revive the sense of security of a TV Western, where good triumphs over evil, and the hero escapes with barely a scratch.

Yet Cliff, an effortlessly charming Adonis, introduces a dissonance to Tarantino’s conception of heroism. Tarantino revels lovingly in the textures of his bachelor pad, his rapport with his dog, his ripped torso, before introducing the open-ended rumor that Cliff killed his wife (Rebecca Gayheart). A brief shot of the couple out at sea, Gayheart prattling comically and unsympathetically on, invokes the circumstances of Natalie Wood’s death. In doing so, Hollywood complicates its escapist obliteration of a mythological cultural turning point: the tactile pleasures of the film’s nostalgia, and its imagined catharsis, are wrapped up in violent impulses, the systemic toxicity of “simpler times.” Acceptance of Cliff’s cartoonish film-world pummeling of the Family — also played for laughs — relies on the audience’s knowledge of their real-world actions, which blinds them to the extent of Cliff’s capabilities. As a side effect, Hollywood implies the futility of using the butterfly effect to tidy the industry’s disturbing, and bloody, past.

History, of course, is always a matter of interpretation. When Joan Didion wrote in the title essay of The White Album that “the paranoia was fulfilled” by the Family’s murders, she couched it in an essay whose recollections — spanning The Doors, Huey Newton, and campus activism — only conjured the disorder of lived experience through careful structure. Whether striving to confront Manson as he was or imagining parallel universes, fiction filmmakers don’t disclose the facts so much as they reveal their dreams of cohesion.


Chloe Lizotte is a film critic, programmer, and screenwriter based in New York. Her writing has been published by Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and Guernica.

LARB Contributor

Chloe Lizotte is a film critic, programmer, and screenwriter based in New York. Her writing has been published by Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and Guernica. You can follow her on Twitter at @celizotte.


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