The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival screened not one movie but two that showcase history’s most infamous serial killers: Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.
American Psycho director Mary Harron helms the Manson-focused feature Charlie Says, which sees Matt Smith (The Crown) portray the charismatic cult leader who orchestrated the murders of nine innocents over the course of two months in 1969. And Netflix’s Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, stars Zac Efron as the magnetic, murderous psychopath who confessed to 30 homicides in seven states from 1974 to 1978.
Both films attempt to portray these notorious criminals in a way that doesn’t tread the already worn path so many documentaries, true crime series, and dramatic reenactments have come before.
For Harron, that means focusing on the women lured into Manson’s web of abuse and manipulation. Game of Thrones‘ Hannah Murray, Sosie Bacon, and Marianne Rendon play the trio of girls who aided Manson in the killings, murdering on his command after being indoctrinated into the cult he formed at Spahn Ranch. The film follows their journey as Murray’s Leslie is introduced to life on the commune and slowly falls under its leader’s spell in flashback, while in the present, she’s questioning the events and her memories of them that led to her imprisonment.
Joe Berlinger’s crime drama chooses to center the camera squarely on Efron, who delivers a chilling turn as Bundy, a handsome, educated man who successfully hides his darker impulses from those around him. Lily Collins plays his wife, Liz, and though the film attempts to give us a view of the chaos from her angle, Berlinger can’t help but be drawn to his enigmatic lead. The director seems so enamored with Bundy’s wild tale that he chooses to gloss over the actual crimes he committed — we never see any bloodshed until the film’s closing minutes — in favor of lingering shots of his romance with Liz, his ingenious escape attempts, and his history-making trial.
And that narrative choice is what makes Harron’s film the better, and certainly the more accurate, of the two.
In Charlie Says, the director is able to cut a mythical figure down to size, stripping Manson of vanity and performative veneer to get at the meat of the man. She does this mainly through his interactions with women. In one scene, Manson is taking a bath when a prospective new follower, who he quickly dismisses after the woman challenges him, is introduced.