Quentin Tarantino Does Manson? That’s News That Should Thrill Cinema Lovers

Quentin Tarantino Manson Murders Movie
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It happens often enough. A great filmmaker announces his next project and you feel a frisson of electricity, a little charge of “Oh, man, that sounds amazing.” I felt it when I heard that Damien Chazelle would follow “La La Land” with an epic drama about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo missions (call it “The Right Stuff Shoots the Moon”). Or when it was revealed, earlier this week, that Barry Jenkins, coming off “Moonlight,” would realize his long-gestating dream of adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem-set novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” But it isn’t often — it’s almost never — that the mere announcement of a director’s upcoming film carries a jolt of meaning.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that Quentin Tarantino’s next movie would be a dramatization of the events surrounding the Manson family murders, in the summer of 1969. To me, that sounds like the first Tarantino film in a long while that has the makings of something revolutionary. Tarantino has never before made a film based on actual events (unless you count World War II — and even there he changed the ending). But it’s not only the docudrama aspect that’s novel. It’s that a movie about Charles Manson and his “family” of unhinged hippie wastrels almost needs to be a fever dream rooted in the real world. And that’s a place that Tarantino’s pop-is-all/all-is-pop aesthetic has come to have an increasingly tenuous relationship with.

Anyone who has bothered to think much about Charles Manson probably falls into one of two camps. Either you believe that Manson and his followers were depraved sick puppies whose violence was too gruesome to be connected to anything but its own insanity, and that’s all there was to it; or you think that the Manson murders, unspeakable as they were, created a staggering mythology of American evil that has only enlarged with the decades.

The Manson murders are always talked about, along with Altamont, as the shock wave that crashed down on the ’60s. At this point, though, who gives a rat’s behind about the implosion of the counterculture? The Manson murders were about the destruction of something much larger than the 1960s; they were about the destruction of empathy. As in: How could “Charlie’s girls” have done it? How could they have wielded those knives? In that way? How could even the craziest cult thinking and wildest binges have led them to go over that edge?

There are many aspects of the Manson saga that place it right in Tarantino’s wheelhouse. The most obvious is its ultraviolence. One of the reasons we have films as hypnotic in their sadistic flamboyance as “A Clockwork Orange” or “Pulp Fiction” is that Charles Manson singed that level of mayhem into our consciousness. Yet the key overlap may be that Manson himself became a part of pop culture. With his derelict snarl and demon hypnotist’s stare, and a swastika carved into his forehead (an act that Tarantino mimicked in Inglourious Basterds), Manson fashioned himself into a larger-than-life figure — a hippie-Christ garbage devil, a messiah of hate.

From the outset, he longed to fuse with pop culture, to magnify his rage in its sound waves. And that’s just what he did — through his friendship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, which led the group to record one of Manson’s songs (Guns N’ Roses did one, too, releasing it as an unlisted track on 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident”), or through his infamous psychotic belief that the Beatles were calling out to him, sending him messages through their music, especially that proto-punk bad-vibe apocalypse “Helter Skelter.” There is also the whole race thing: Charlie’s fetishization of what he saw as the insurrectionary force of black culture, which finds an echo in Tarantino’s. The fact that Manson’s most famous victim, Sharon Tate, was the wife of Roman Polanski, director of creepy nightmare thrillers, only added — however speciously — to the media karma of his crimes.

In the articles, thus far, about Tarantino’s film, there has been the usual frantic, and weakly sourced, speculation about name actors being offered this or that role — like the rumor (completely unconfirmed) that one highly popular actress might be offered the role of Sharon Tate, or that Brad Pitt is being talked about to play prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Yet apart from the casting of Charlie himself, my first question wouldn’t even be about Sharon Tate or Vincent Bugliosi. It would be: Who’s going to play Susan Atkins? Who’s going to show the audience how a “normal” 21-year-old middle-class woman descends into savagery as a twisted expression of the if it feels good do it! era?

Of course, the person who’s got to show us that — if the film is going to work — is Tarantino himself. And my point is that if he brings that off, it will mark a seismic change in the kind of movie he’s been making. In 25 years, Quentin Tarantino has directed just nine features (according to him, it’s eight — the difference being whether you count “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Kill Bill: Volume 2” as one film or two), and while I consider myself a fan of almost every one of them, I’d be a dishonest critic if I denied that even as a QT believer, there’s a part of me that rejects the trajectory of his career: the evolution from the close-to-the-bone humanistic pop drama of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” to the more grandiose, stylized quality of almost everything that has come afterward.

For the record: I adore some of those films. “Death Proof” is a mesmerizing action allegory that charts, and celebrates, the rise of a new kind of feminine power in the universe, and “Inglourious Basterds,” which to me is Tarantino’s greatest achievement post-“Pulp,” is a movie that cross-breeds the narrative magic of Old Hollywood with an outrageous and voluble yarn-spinning joy. It may trash history, but part of its joke is: Which “classic” WWII movie didn’t?

And yet, when I look back over Quentin’s career, there’s a little voice inside me that has never stopped murmuring: Why are his first two movies his best two? I know a lot of people feel differently (and I’m sorry, but I think “Jackie Brown” is a bit boring), yet with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino made movies that were extravagant jukebox operas of desperado passion that kept touching down in reality. And that’s what people loved about them — that they struck that balance, that they took place in criminal counter-worlds that never stopped mirroring our own.

I felt the first ashy, depressing strains of Tarantino burnout when I saw “The Hateful Eight,” a convoluted conundrum of a movie that with its single set photographed in 70mm, played like the world’s most lavishly overblown episode of “Gunsmoke” crossed with “Ten Little Indians.” It was full of tricks and gambits and reversals, yet on some fundamental level it was a Tarantino film that was more about itself — and nothing but itself — than any Tarantino movie ever had been. It was joyless and misanthropic and oppressive. It signaled, to me, that Quentin might be starting to run on empty.

To a lot of people, a Manson family drama may not sound much more “humane,” yet Quentin, by the description his own representatives put out, wants to tell a story about how the age of free love morphed into something horrific — a transformation that still has disturbing implications today. Will he play it straight or Tarantino-ize it? My instinct (or maybe it’s just a hope) is that Tarantino can’t reduce the Manson story to another of his concoctions. I mean, he can, of course, but it wouldn’t feel right, and it wouldn’t be inspiring cinema.

And who will play Charlie? There is already an actor who has done it brilliantly, and I’m not talking about Steve Railsback in the 1976 TV version of “Helter Skelter,” though he (and the movie) are famously good. I’m referring to Jeremy Davies in the scandalously underpraised 2004 TV remake of “Helter Skelter.” He’s the one actor who has captured Manson’s danger, his wackadoo hipster snake-charmer charisma. Davies seethed like a wasp with a broken stinger, playing Manson as just who he was: the first rock star of homicide. That’s what the Manson story is really about — how in a society of debased celebrity, a Satanic guru with a death wish could rule. If Quentin Tarantino, on the 50th anniversary of the Manson cataclysm (the film starts shooting next year, for what will be a 2019 or end-of-2018 release), can uncork the full madness of that time, and why it still speaks to us, he may liberate himself as an artist, replacing the more calculated audacity of his recent work with the true audacity he owes himself.

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  1. Caitlyn says:

    Jeremy Davies was who I first thought of when I heard the news, I didnt know he had played Manson before though.

    John hawkes would also do great with the role. I quite like the idea of Jennifer Lawrence as Sharon Tate; she embodies the star on a rise quality that Tate had at the time and would really be excruciating to watch get killed in such a terrible way.

  2. JT says:

    Matthew McConaughey or Fassbender would be excellent choices for Manson if you ask me. Both actors are incredible at playing intense characters.

  3. Jack says:

    How the Summer of Love morphed into Manson? What’s next? How the 20’s of the Charleston morphed into Dachau? Manson was not “a larger than life figure.” He is a con man and pimp who learned how to manipulate people while incarcerated for half of the first 32 years of his life. The murders were not committed by ordinary, good kids who were warped by Manson. They were warped long before they met him. Other family members refused to commit murder and left. Have we forgotten that we are discussing real people, innocent people, who were brutally murdered? How much screen time will they get, except when they are being slaughtered? Everyone knows the names Manson and Atkins and most know Watkins and Van Houten. How many can name all seven who died on those two nights? One was Wojciech Frykowski. He was shot twice, stabbed 51 times, and his skull was crushed by 13 blows to his head. That’s not “fusion with pop culture,” unless one is talking about “Halloween 18.”

  4. Tony Arguien says:

    I could see Jared Leto pulling it off as Charles Manson. Now yes some people are griping about this project. Why glorify The Manson Murders? With movies like The Purge being made by today’s standards, let us not forget it was the tragic Tate-LaBianca murders that inspired movies like The Purge in the first place. We cannot ignore the fact that these grisly acts took place in the paisley days of the late 60s and they happened in gasp America. With that racist SOB LBJ in office! The fact that Manson had a high IQ. The fact that he ran a hippie farm. The fact that he was a self-appointed Messiah who commissioned the deaths of “rich white pigs” signals to a cause of a far deeper malaise. And Kudos to QT for having the balls to tackle this burning issue that never really went away.

  5. Draven says:

    Why would anyone want to give those sick fucks the time of day.They’re in jail for a reason (To be forgotten about) What happened to Sharon, Her unborn son and close friends is awful. Why give these people the time of day!? We know what happened that night and have documentaries about it. Rest in peace Sharon <3 A true fan of yours always.

  6. lizparks20 says:

    Rosamund Pike should play Susan Atkins, no question. She floored me in Gone Girl

  7. CutZy McCall says:

    I don’t know why. I was perfectly fine with Aquarius. Now they have canceled one of the best shows, at a crucial moment: just before Manson struck down his victims.

  8. Christopher L Johnson says:

    2 things. First. I LOVE Jackie Brown!! Boring? Not for me. Second. I remember when I was 6 in 1976 and the TV movie “Helter Skelter” came on. I watched it with my older brothers and it absolutely terrified me!! Steve looked, moved, and sounded exactly like Manson. The remake was good..but for me, it just doesn’t compare to the original…which even to this day, is just as creepy and eerie as it was all those years ago. One other thing..great article!

    • Steve says:

      I was 15 when the original aired. It made a big impression on me; I got Bugliosi’s book and also read other sources. I agree that Steve Railsback did a great job as Manson, who was essentially the first example of murderer as rock star. Even to this day, I remember how that case shot straight to the heart of the zeitgeist. And I’ve enjoyed reading the thoughts here, both of Glieberman and the letter writers. It all still brings about dark fascination, after all these years.

  9. Very cool article. Though I may not agree with everything one thing I can agree on is that “Inglorious Basterds” was such a wonderful film. My favorite of his.

  10. MS Raines says:

    I agree about Jeremy Davies. He captured all the many troubling facets of Manson’s personality, showing how Manson was able to make people believe him, follow him, and commit horrible crimes for him.

  11. Quentin Tarantino says:

    “… the destruction of empathy” I love this article, and most Owen Gleiberman articles are amazing. But that line — well, feels lazy to me. It’s a vast oversimplification and reductive conclusion of the damage that Manson inflicted. “Empathy” is a subject Gleiberman is usually spot on about in his articles, especially in film reviews he does about the death of empathy in America…which, yes, is our main sin. No, the true horror of Charles Manson is that he invented a slaughter as ritualistic as it was maniacal. This wasn’t merely a novel form of murder. It’s was a new way of thinking, a sadism so pitiless and refined it suggests a world in which death, let alone life, no longer enjoys the protection of God. Yet what anyone from the century of Norman Bates and Osama bin Laden knows too well, is that it’s often precisely the man of intelligence and privilege who can afford to so luxuriate in his dark side. Manson brought to America a crusade of messianic evil, and we are still haunted by the calculated extremes of malevolence that are today normalized and were cast by a sinister shadow of the apocalyptic age we now reside.

    • That’s a stunning and brilliant analysis. I’ve long claimed that “Psycho” is a movie about the death of God, and you’re right — so were Manson’s crimes. That’s part of why they changed the world overnight. It’s also part of why we’re still absorbing what he and his followers did: the horror of it, the blasphemy of it, the savage meaning of it. It’s almost as if he invented a new kind — or level — of sin.

  12. Matt Stevenson says:

    I heard a few years ago that he was working on a ‘prison western’. Not sure if that has been abandoned or not.

  13. Steve Barr says:

    I consider myself to be a cinema lover and I think a movie about Manson is a stupid idea . Tarantino once said that his favorite person in American history was John Brown . That would be a great film . Or he could do a movie about General Smedley Butler . I like Tarantino but I could care less about a movie about Manson!

  14. Bill B. says:

    It’s interesting how much of this article I agree with. I think Tarantino is one of this era’s greatest directors, but his first two films are his true masterpieces. All of his films after that have been excellent to very good though his segment of Four rooms was as terrible as the rest of the movie and I once again agree about The Hateful Eight. I couldn’t wait to see it and about three quarters of the way through, I couldn’t wait for it to end. That does not mean it does not have its moments, especially those of Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s length alone is a major problem. Despite his last being a disappointment, I can’t think of a director who would be more interesting for this subject matter though David Fincher comes to mind as an interesting alternative. I can’t wait, though casting is sort of crucial for this to turn out well. I must admit that I haven’t any memory of the Helter Skelter remake, but since Jeremy Davies seems loony in nearly everything he does, I would imagine that he might’ve been terrific in this role.

  15. Julie A says:

    James McAvoy my pick to play Manson. He can play charasmatic and mad as we have seen. It would be great to see what he could do with Tarantino.

  16. P. Murt says:

    What would thrill cinema lovers is if a director could make his movie without endless commentary and opinion about it BEFORE HE EVEN FINISHES THE SCRIPT!!!

  17. Theresa Edge says:

    Sarah Gadon a very pretty Canadian actor has the looks and the similar voice,would be perfect to play Sharon Tate…

    • Beatrix Kiddo says:

      With mention Tarantino met with Margot Robbie to play Sharon Tate, my guess is that Jennifer Lawrence is going to be Susan Atkins.

    • Steve says:

      Great idea! She really proved that she’s a great actress in last years Indignation. She’d crush that role.

    • Wow, that’s an exceptional casting choice! Of course, we’ll end up with Jennifer Lawrence. Talented in her own right, but as Tate, totally miscast. Same w/ Leonardo DiCaprio as Manson. Get someone like Mark Ruffalo instead.

      • Steve says:

        I think they need to go younger and lesser known for Manson. And Brad Pitt as Bugliosi is just odd. And, again, too old.

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