Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is reportedly centered on the Manson Family murders. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says is less about the murders, more about Manson’s family, especially the women. The film’s title is a manifestation of how brainwashed this bunch was, how absurdly subservient and accepting. If they take a day off on the farm, where the cult resides, it’s because “Charlie says… it’s not a day for working, so we are just being today.” If they are forbidden to read any books except the Bible, it’s because “Charlie says… authors are evil. They’re always trying to play mind tricks on readers.” When Lulu (Hannah Murray), Sadie (Marianne Rendón) and Katie (Sosie Bacon) end up in prison after the spree of killings whose victims included Sharon Tate, a graduate student named Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who’s trying to deprogram them, cuts them off when they begin to say, “Charlie says…” She asks, “But what do you think?”
Harron shares Karlene’s sympathy. In her director’s statement, she said, “It is comforting to see the Manson girls as monsters, as ‘others’, as outliers to normal human experience. In fact the most disturbing thing about them is their ordinariness. How did these perfectly sane and likable young women come to commit such hideous crimes?” But Harron isn’t able to tell us much more than what we already know, and her wafer-thin connections between the past (in the Manson farm) and the present (in jail) are too pat: for instance, Manson rants about blacks, and we cut to a black man talking to the prisoners. Can anyone really know why these girls did these things? Despite the carnage, Charlie Says is a curiously bloodless affair.
The setting is somewhere in Oregon, sometime during the Gold Rush. The characters are two unseen men (it’s night; they’re presumably bounty hunters or hired killers), one of whom says, “This is the Sisters brothers. The Commodore sent us. We know you have Blount. Hand him over and the rest of you shall live.” There’s no response. Suddenly, the dark screen explodes with flashes of gunfire. Many people end up dead. Worse, the barn catches fire. A horse, ablaze, lopes across the frame in what might be the most heart-stopping instance of equine cruelty since Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. None of which is what you’d expect from the opening stretch of un film de Jacques Audiard, the prickly auteur behind The Beat that My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, Rust and Bone and Dheepan.
But when art-house filmmakers tackle genre material, there’s always an interesting signature, whether the film ultimately succeeds (Lars von Trier diving into the musical with Dancer in the Dark) or fails (Luca Guadagnino taking a stab at horror with Suspiria). Audiard’s tryst with the Western seems surprisingly straight at first, little more than a checkbox-ticking effort. Magnificent open spaces, stretching from Oregon to California, shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie? A possible nod to the genre’s god, John Ford (the doorway-framed homecoming shot from The Searchers)? Hee-haw frontier shtick (this newfangled thing called a toothbrush, y’know)? Check, check, and check. The story appears traditional, too — a morality tale that says greed isn’t good, and that violence begets violence. But slowly, Audiard (who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, based on Patrick deWitt’s novel) begins to assert himself.
The Sisters Brothers is sinfully enjoyable, and all the more so because a beloved character actor steals the movie from under the top-billed star. As good as the others are, this is John C Reilly’s film
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Audiard re-envisions the genre, the way the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns did. But he does muddy the clean lines between heroes and villains. On one side, you have a couple of “bad guys: Eli Sisters (John C Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix). They’re hitmen. They capture and/or kill men their boss, the Commodore, wants. “We’ve got a season of blood ahead of us,” Charlie sighs, at one point. He knows it’s one of two things: shoot, or get shot. On the other side, we have the “good guys”: John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a prospector, and the magnificently named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has cracked the formula for a divining substance that, when mixed in water, pinpoints where the gold is. This leads to a magical sequence that’s part children’s-literature fantasy, part gruesome reality, and all Audiard.
In a Western, we know our sympathies should lie with the good guys. But look at the scene where John Morris is revealed as an associate of the Sisters brothers. In a Western, we know the good guys win. But consider what happens to Hermann Kermit Warm, who dreams of a sweet world without greed. In a Western, we know the bad guys are to be hated. But see how lovable the Sisters brothers are, how playful and emotional their relationship is. The Sisters Brothers is sinfully enjoyable, and all the more so because a beloved character actor steals the movie from under the top-billed star. As good as the others are, this is John C Reilly’s film. At first, he comes across as the warm-hearted schlub he almost always plays, but soon he develops a killer personality that’s all his own, which leads to a memorable instance of sexual role-playing. And oh, a doff of the Stetson to Alexandre Desplat, whose sparsely used score paints its own landscape with jangly piano riffs and discordant chords. He’s doing his own bit of revisionism.
Pablo Trapero won the Silver Lion for Best Direction, at the 2015 Venice film festival, for The Clan. His new film could have come with the same title, for it’s about a clan gathering around a gravely ill patriarch: mother Esmeralda (Graciela Borges), daughters Mía (Martina Gusmán) and Eugenia (Bérénice Bejo), and the latter’s husband, Vincent (Édgar Ramírez). At first La Quietud (The Stillness; Spanish, French) seems to contain the perfect family. There’s lots of love — perhaps too much so. In an early scene, Mía and Eugenia masturbate side-by-side, in bed, thinking of Luc, the plumber from their childhood. South American films (this one’s from Argentina) are so gloriously horny. The sex doesn’t so much happen as erupt. It must be the sun, which floods the landscape and makes everything simmer.
And then, the facade begins to peel off. The title turns into a joke. Esmeralda reveals a ghastly secret no child should have to hear from a parent. Mía seems annoyed rather than happy when Eugenia announces she’s pregnant. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she says, struggling to smile. We seem to be watching a telenovela — but La Quietud cuts deeper. There’s more to Mía’s annoyance than just the fact that she wasn’t told earlier. Even the casual clothes the girls throw on when visiting their father — Mía in blue, Eugenia in pink — find a reason by the film’s end. The tone fluctuates wildly. We laugh often at the exaggerated goings-on, which have a delicious you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me vitality. But at heart, the film makes us ponder over the thin line between a “normal” family and a dysfunctional one. Who gets to decide? Not the viewer, for sure.