"A horrible thing happened here, and you want to celebrate that? Haven't you ever lost anybody?"
- actress Suzanne Ford portraying the modern day owner of LaBianca house in Manson Family Vacation"Their actually better than a real family cause they went out and found each other"
- Linas Phillips (As Conrad) explaining "The Family" to his nephew in Manson Family Vacation
Much love and gratitude, as always, to Patty for turning me on to this movie. I was so anxious to see it, that I originally watched it as soon as I got home, in the middle of the night, after a long flight back from the West Coast. I was tired, and catching the "Good-nite buzz", so by the time the movie hit its last 45 minutes- I was not in the proper condition to comprehend what ended up happening. So, I then watched it again the next morning to make sure that I had not somehow misunderstood. After realizing I hadn't, I watched it a third time...
This is not a comedy or road-trip buddy movie. I thought that is what it would be, and for the first 40 minutes, it sort of was. It does have elements of both of those types of films throughout. But, ultimately, there is more going on here than that. A lot more. I waited a few weeks to type this review so as to give the people in the community so inclined the chance to see it before revealing the ending. I am going to do that now. So, if you wish to take this trip on your own - now is the time to bail.
For the rest of you...
Before I go into the full review and my commentary, I want to take a minute to make some general comments. First of all, the average score for this movie on Rotten Tomatoes is a 6.9. A good score. It has received some recognition in the form of positive reviews and awards as well. Partly funded by kickstarter- this Duplass Brothers movie has been obviously well received by the general public who have screened it. This wasn't a big budget production, and the marketing is not likely to attract the mass audience awareness to get this movie the type of attention I think it deserves. That is a shame.
Next, there was a movie made not too long ago called "Waiting" starring Ryan Reynolds. It was about one day at a T.G.I. Fridays/Bennigans styled restaurant. It was a semi-funny comedy that most people got a few laughs from and then forgot all about. However, if you have ever worked in the restaurant business- watching that movie was an entirely different experience for you. There is a set of terms, expressions, and phrases that are almost like another language going on inside of a kitchen that most people in the general public would think was from another planet. A sub-culture among the staff exists in those types of restaurants that only people who been part of one will understand. Manson Family Vacation will feel a lot like that to most of you in this community. If the general public gives this move a 6.9- then in our world you can add another point or two for things we understand that the general public will just never get. As a recent visitor to every location they used in this film- I can tell you that they are fairly accurate. They go to the exact street intersections of both the Tate, and LaBianca homes, but when they film the close up scenes in and in front of the actual houses- they are not the actual houses ( I guess that is understandable lol). They have central characters named "Blackbird and Sunshine" ( Tobin Bell and Davie-Blu) who are clear references to Greywolf and Star. There is mention of going to Death Valley to join an " Environmental group." Most of the general public won't get that means ATWA or understand the real relevance of those two characters. So, I guess my point is that there are probably going to be a few people who might make the same mistake I made of paying too much attention to the trivia and not paying enough attention to the road ahead and bigger picture. This movie takes a serious turn. I had no idea where it was headed and it ended up having an impression on me when it got to its conclusion. A real catharsis takes place at the end of this film. But before we get into that, let me start at the beginning....
The two main characters in this film are brothers. One is a successful corporate attorney named Nick ( Jay Duplass) who is married with one 7 year old child. The other brother, Conrad ( Linas Phillips), was adopted. He is a frustrated artist type who, we learn early on, has just quit his job. Conrad has sold all his possessions, and is heading out to Death Valley to join an "Environmentalist group". On his way to Death Valley, Conrad is going to stop by his brother Nicks' house to visit for a couple of nights.
Sidebar - Nicks wife ( Leonora Pitts) - Either by coincidence or not- reminds me very much of what a modern day "Cosmo" type Manson girl might look like lol. Maybe its just me?- or this intentional casting? Sort-of-Plain, yet somehow sexy. Vulnerable but strong... I was smitten with this actress lol
The film begins with some older footage of Charlie giving an interview about the Children. You have seen this one before. He explains why he stays relevant to Children. He does the wild arm-flagging dance for the reporter, He is "Brand new" he tells the interviewer. He is one of them...
We then get introduced to both of our main characters. Conrad is hitchhiking up towards his brothers house with not much success. Nick is at his office explaining to his secretary, and by extension to us, who Conrad is and what his situation is. Then soon after, Nick is at home having the same discussion, with a little more detail, with his wife. During this conversation we learn that Conrad was adopted and that he has missed their recent fathers funeral. Conrad has been an edgy, irresponsible child who was always very interested in death and conspiracies, and his art work is very dark. I felt the first time around this scene was written to explain why the two brothers were so obviously different, and to set up why Conrad might have such dark interests. It sort of was- but not for the reasons I thought as we will see later. Anyway around the time they have given up wondering when he would get there...
Conrad finally shows up at Nicks house. He hides under a table and startles him by jumping out and grabbing him with one arm and thrusting a ( anyone?) buck knife at him with the other. After saying hello, and having Conrad explain he has quit his job and is heading out to Death Valley, Conrad and Nick go outside of Nicks beautiful home to talk privately. After requesting to sleep in the back yard in a tent, Conrad reveals to Nick he has a plan for them for the following day. He wants to visit some sites around town related to the Charles Manson murder cases. After showing some initial reluctance, Nick succumbs as Conrad is able to use guilt- a common theme here with Nick- to convince him he only has one day in town before he leaves and it is something they can do together. There a few moments in this film where Nick is forced to make a choice between common sense and doing something questionable out of a feeling of guilt about how he has treated Conrad. Again, with his wife constantly pushing him in Conrads direction, Nick goes through more changes in this movie than any other character. There is a strong indication early and often that Conrad has been treated as an outsider his entire childhood. Nick is constantly agonizing over the role he played in that. This will lead him down a challenging path later when trying to reconcile major revelations. But at this early point- Nick simply agrees to chauffeur his brother to a few local locations. It is important to note that the contrast between the brothers is emphasized strongly early on. Nick was the real child, and the overachiever. Conrad was the outsider, who nobody ever seemed to care much about. At one point in an early conversation Nick points out to Conrad that "Your whole dynamic is this everyone hates me thing." To this Conrad simply asks him back "Well don't they?" The question goes unanswered. It is apparent that Conrad has always been an outsider in his adopted family. Nick acts very condescending towards Conrad frequently in the early part of the film.
The next day is more or less what I thought this whole movie was going to be. They go on a laugh a minute, embarrassment a minute for Nick, furious tour around LA of the major Manson related locations. One noticeable omission was the Spahn Ranch. But again, as a recent visitor, there isn't much there anymore to see. They went to the front of the gate at Cielo, and the front yard at Waverly. They ate at El Coyote. They cruise around the locales, as Nick points out to Conrad at one point, "Your enthusiasm for all of this is frightening." After embarrassing Nick at the Tate house to a neighbor by taking off his sweatshirt to reveal a Manson T shirt and screaming, Conrad calms him down in the car by using guilt again, along with a few hits of weed. By the time they get to Waverly, a buzzing Nick is helping Conrad get into the house by making up a lie to the present owners about being the Labainca's grandkids. This back and forth with Nick is constantly happening. He is primarily repulsed by the subject matter. On the other hand, he is constantly trying to pacify and make things right with his brother who he feels is running away in part due to a life of neglect he in part caused. So he repeatedly helps Conrad get into and around these places, and later people, which repulse him. "People died here. you have to respect that." Nick tells Conrad outside of the Tate house. Yet 30 minutes later, he is lying trying to help him get pics in front of the LaBianca's refrigerator.
It is an interesting question. Where do we draw the line? Where do I draw my own? I am repulsed by what the murderers did, and what happened at these places. But, I too was at that gate....
During the day we see that Conrad knows a lot about the case. He carries around a copy of Helter Skelter, but people in the community will hear Conrad say things which indicate a much more thorough understanding of the events which took place than that particular book offered. Someone did their homework. I will get to more about this shortly. At one point when looking it over Nick comes across a pic of the babies and asks what happened to them. I never paid attention to Conrad's muted answer the first screening around. A sort of theme starts to develop where Conrad reveals more and more about his actual destination, and his involvement with Charlie as time goes on, and Nick starts to realize that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. At the end of the nite, back at Nicks house, they end up arguing about Conrad's involvement with Nick's young son- who has been having some trouble at school. However, after another heart to heart with the wife and another guilt ridden trip down memory lane, Nick agrees to drive Conrad out to Death Valley so he wont have to hitch. Interesting that later Conrad is able to offer some sage advice to Nick about how to handle his son...
When they get out to Death Valley Nick realizes quickly that Conrad is joining up with a group of "Manson People." By now, Nick is more or less on a rescue mission. It has become apparent that Conrad's entire agenda has been to join a group of people who all have some type of a connection to Charlie. Nick is disgusted, but feels partly responsible, so he sticks around to both help Conrad in his quest to find the leader of the group ( Blackbird), as well as to sort of watch out for him. We start to see now that Nick is feeling responsible for all of this. His own guilt along with the constant reinforcement from his wife ( who constantly refers to Conrad sweetly as "Connie") has manifested. Now add in that Conrad has played his own situation beautifully. Actor Linas Phillips does a perfect job as Conrad of looking menacing and dangerous, but coming across as sweet and gentle. He says just the right things to Nick at the precise moments they will deliver the most impact. He is always playing the sympathy card perfectly, and never aggressive. On the ride up there are a few funny moments. At one point Conrad plays a few tunes from the LIE CD, and lets Nick compliment them, before telling him who is singing. This is a trick I have done myself a few times lol
This brings me back to the point about someone doing their homework. The leaders of the group they are trying to find, and ultimately do, are two characters named "Blackbird and Sunshine" who seem to run the environmental group. This, again, is an obvious reference to Greywolf, and Star. The group itself is an obvious reference to ATWA. At one point in Death Valley Blackbird takes Conrad to see the "Black Bus". There are a few mentions in this movie the casual viewer probably would not get like some of the rest of us would. One wonders who may have helped with this movie, or where they got their information?
Anyway- the final act of this movie takes it in almost a completely different direction. The laughs are over. It seems that Charlie has been waiting patiently for Conrad to show up, and is asking about him every day. The Sunshine character takes an immediate sexual interest in Conrad and everyone in the environmental group treats him with deference. That nite in Death Valley culminates with a party for Conrad with the whole environmentalist group. As more and more people heap praise and adulation at Conrad, Nick wonders around taking it all in, and trying to figure out a way to get his brother out of there. Then the "Blackbird" character takes Nick aside and delivers the zinger. He shows a picture of the babies from "The Family" similar to the one Nick had seen earlier in H/S and goes into a little more detail about what happened to them. Then he shows Nick another picture of a woman and a baby and tells him that this baby is Conrad.
Conrad is Charlie's son.
Now this may sound like it could go off the rails at this point, but somehow it works. Tobin Bell does an amazing job in his role as 'Blackbird", and by now Linas Phillips has reeled you in. You care about Conrad. And now it all makes sense. The adoption, the dark art, the scary eyes blended with the easy manner. Nick, who by now isn't looking nearly as smart or cocky as in the first part of the film, is shocked and appalled. The roles have reversed now. Conrad is confident and in charge of his destiny and Nick seems out of place and lost. All I can say is that this transition happens so slowly in front of you that, to me, it just worked ( At least once I watched it semi-straight lol). Nick tries to convince Conrad that he has a "real" family, and he needs to come back with him. He lays it all on the line and takes full responsibility for the years of pain he has caused Conrad. But, Conrad gets a call from Charlie at that exact moment and has to make a choice. He takes the call. A furious and disappointed Nick is left to go home alone. Nick thinks things through during the long ride home, and then after having one more talk with the wife, Nick knows that there is only one thing that he can do. So, he heads back to Death Valley to rescue Conrad for once and all. This sets up the final confrontation of good versus evil. Right versus wrong. Real Family versus "The Family"...
He gets to the prison where Conrad is about to meet Charlie for the first time just as Conrad is about to enter. They have one final brilliantly acted conversation, which almost brought a tear to my eye, outside the entrance to the prison. And then.....
Well, lol- if you are still interested- you will have to go watch for yourself!
The Manson Family Vacation starts and ends with audio of Charlie. This movie takes place in a world that some people reading this belong to, and others of us reading this flirt with. It floats from location to location with Charlie looming over the entire story-line, but I believe not at its core. I believe, at its core, this a movie about family. Family and interpersonal relationships. What is a real family? Who are your real brothers and sisters? Is it as simple as blood and biological parents? What happens when you have two groups of people you belong to, or have ties to? What counts more when it comes to loyalty to people- where you come from or where your going? In the case of this movie- what if you dont even feel attached to one group at all, but have been tied to them through no choice of your own? How do you make these choices? Well, this movie ends with the idea that there might be hope there is a way one wouldn't have to choose. If we can open our hearts just a little bit to compassion and understanding it may be possible to have it both ways. Conrad ends up teaching Nick a few lessons in this movie, and after the first 30 minutes of it- if you saw that coming- your a lot more perceptive than I. This movie made me laugh, think and even a little sentimental. What else can you ask for from a flic?
Saint Circumstance says: On a scale of 1 to 10 Coors Lites - 8 pack :)
Thanks again Patty :)
-Your Favorite Saint