13 February 2005 | Anonymous_Maxine
We're the low art gloominati, And we aim to depress. The scabaret sacri-legends, this is the Golden Age of Grotesque.
It is with mixed emotions that I give this outstanding documentary such a high rating, because it doesn't exactly know where the line between glorification of a murderous madman and objective re-telling of a truly horrible tale is (and often crosses it), but the movie is so effective at telling the tale of Charles Manson and his followers that it deserves to be seen. Before I go on, it should also be noted that the movie takes a great many creative liberties with its source material, which is perfectly fine with me. What I don't like is when movies are marketed as based on true events or inspired by true events or something and then take some story and do whatever they want with it. This movie is so honest that it starts with nearly a solid minute of full-screen titles explaining that the story has been fictionalized, that certain characters and events have been dramatized for effect.
That being said, it clearly is not a history lesson of what Manson did, which I almost think that it should have been because of the horrific nature of his crimes (if I can be excused a gag-inducing legal-thriller cliché). The one problem that I have with the movie is that, since so much was dramatized, it was made almost as a fictional thriller rather than a documentary about the Manson family. I saw a documentary about the standoff in Waco that went into great detail about the ATF's involvement (and endless screwups) that resulted in the deaths of so many people, and I think something similar would have been the best way to approach this movie.
The murder scenes in this movie are extremely difficult to watch because you know they really happened. If nothing else, great attention was paid to making sure that the murders were as close to real life as possible. Many of the victims were even in the same position and locations in and around their houses as they really were when they were found. And this is what made me dislike the level of glorification in the movie. Charles Manson is so deeply insane and the murders committed by his followers, no matter how brainwashed they were, were so heinous and so disgusting that it made me wish they had thrown him in prison and barred all reporters from talking to him or anyone who knew anything about him.
His punishment should have been disappearance.
On the other hand, I guess I have to admit that I am fascinated by stories like his, which is why I watch documentaries about the standoff at Waco and movies about Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy. But I like to think that I look at them almost like extended news clips (despite being fictionalized to whatever extent, in this case), and that I can watch something like this and maintain a level of disgust at what really happened. I see a line, for example, between being impressed with a fictional murderer like Hannibal Lecter and a non-fictional murderer (whether he killed anyone with his own hands or not) like Charles Manson. It made me think twice about what I should really think of the fact that I own 22 Marilyn Manson CDs (see my summary line).
Another thing that I found interesting was that all of this took place in Topanga Canyon, near where I live. In fact, after I finish writing this review I am going on the same bike ride that I do two or three times a week. I go west on Venice Blvd. to Sepulveda, then head north over the Sepulveda pass to Ventura Blvd. I go left on Ventura, through Woodland Hills to Topanga Canyon road, then I follow that all the way to the coast, which takes me directly through the middle of the town where the Manson family lived. I've been through there probably a hundred times and I never knew that was where this all happened. Scary.
Jeremy Davies gives a spectacular performance in the movie, and I like that most of it focuses on him and his followers and how he communicated with them to get them to believe that he was their personal savior when in reality he was the exact opposite, and relatively little time is spent showing the murders (which is good because if it was the other way around the movie would have been literally unwatchable). This case is a textbook study for psychologists about the impressionable young minds of the lost young.
Another element that the movie is not very concerned with is the actual trial itself, although I see no problem with this because it is not a courtroom drama, it is a TV thriller about a murderous cult leader. The movie is already over two hours long, we don't need another hour showing the convictions of a lot of people that we already know were convicted. The movie is more concerned with what events led up to their arrest and prosecution, and in that sense it does very well. Dramatized for effect, but the heart of the meaning of it all is still there.