Not every accused murderer gets a nursery rhyme written in their honor, or has had film directors and heavy metal singers take their name as an edgy, feminist statement. But not every accused murderer has a story quite so exciting as Lizzie Borden’s, the woman who was tried and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax in Massachusetts back in 1892.
While there have been Lifetime movies, musicals and even ballets about the life and times of Lizzie, her story is brought to the screen with a new sense of serious studiousness in “Lizzie,” the result of a decadelong journey by producer and star Chloë Sevigny, who takes on the titular role. Written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill, the film sets out to investigate the why behind the murder of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw), if Lizzie did it at all.
“Lizzie” is a film that takes its subject matter so seriously, it’s drained of all salaciousness, despite the salacious nature of the story — the rumored lesbian affair with maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), the gruesomeness of the deaths, the power struggles over money and property. The combination of It Girls Sevigny and Stewart on screen is so utterly cool, it’s ice, and in some ways, the film could use a little warming up.
The Borden home is depicted as a house of horrors, where the impetuous, bold, but sickly Lizzie clashes with her parents over her freedoms. Maid Bridget, an Irish immigrant, is assaulted nightly by the patriarch, and while her friend and confidant Lizzie gets herself in trouble with her emotional outbursts, Bridget endures hardship quietly, for her own survival. Trapped in a home of abuse, Bridget is an innocent, our moral compass, and Stewart reflects that in a performance that’s pent up, tamped down and pained.
The sound design of “Lizzie” is superb, as the house itself becomes a character in the story. It speaks, telling half the story with the noises that it makes, communicating in creaks, rustles, crackling, groans, footsteps and doors pounding. Deafening footfalls tells us one thing while soft, creaky tiptoeing something vastly different and more sinister.
“Lizzie,” which is methodical and measured to a fault, firmly takes the side of Lizzie. The film presents her as a victim of emotional abuse, a woman sick with epilepsy, and a queer woman whose partner is sexually abused by her father, on whom they are both dependent. Spurred by the greedy machinations of her conniving Uncle John (Denis O’Hare), and the budding relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, the situation at home reaches a boiling point. The film toys with whether or not to show us the murders, teasing that fateful morning again and again, dancing around what we came to see (the part with the ax).
The respect for Lizzie means that film almost denies drama, rendering some moments almost inert. It could use an operatic high note, or even a truly deep dark night of the soul, some oscillation in the levels. But the film reflects the evenness with which Sevigny portrays the unflappable Lizzie, cool as a cucumber all the way to court. That control never betrays her or belies an inconvenient truth, and Sevigny’s steadiness is almost unnerving.
“Lizzie” is a deep dive into the supposed psychology behind the gruesome murders that have captured our collective imaginations for over a century. If the jury who acquitted Lizzie couldn’t have imagined how a woman of her social standing could possibly commit this heinous crime, well “Lizzie” the movie offers an assist with that, and contributes another square to the quilt of Lizzie Borden lore that continues to fascinate.
Rated: R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept 14, Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West L.A.