Lizzie Borden and her family are a morbid footnote of American history. Her father and stepmother were violently murdered with an axe, and while Lizzie was the chief suspect, she was ultimately acquitted for these crimes. Still, the murders and trial captured our ongoing imagination, to the point where Borden appeared in the “jury of the damned” alongside Benedict Arnold and Richard Nixon in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons. The new film Lizzie is an attempt to correct Borden’s story, focusing on slow-burn psychological realism instead of grisly violence. The film is also a longtime passion project for Chloë Sevigny, who stars and also produces. It starts as a family drama brimming with tension, except without much to explore, its inevitable release amounts to a bloody afterthought.
Director Craig William Macneill sets most of the action around Bordens’ household. Its floorboards are always creaking, and the frequent night scenes only have wan pools of light. Sevigny plays Lizzie as a fierce, icy woman, the sort who resents her status as an old maid. Still, the audience entry point is Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), the household’s new servant. Lizzie treats Bridget humanely, while her taciturn father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) avoids familiarity altogether. Lizzie’s sister Emma (Kim Dickens) haunts the background with her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw), so the film amounts to a battle of wills between Lizzie – who craves independence – and a father who sees her as a burden.
The script by Bryce Kass sees Lizzie and Bridget as frustrated antiheroes. There are some modern lines where Lizzie is withering about men, and the films keeps her “old maid” status as subtext. She was thirty-two years old at the time of the murders, but since this was the 1890s, she might as well be post-menopausal. What deepens the resentment is how Andrew treats Bridget: he calls her “Maggie,” a dehumanizing name meant for all female servants, and he sexually abuses her.
Macneill cuts away from anything too disturbing or violent, relying more on suggestion and audience imagination. One notable exception happens early in the film, when Andrew beheads Lizzie’s pet pigeons in a rage. The scene veers toward camp, with Sevigny screaming in the corner, but most of the film is downright reserved about its premise.
The opening act of Lizzie is the most intriguing because we don’t know quite to make of the family. How much of a burden is Lizzie? How monstrous are her father and stepmother? By keeping things ambiguous, there is the suggestion that anything can happen, even if we know how the story ends. As the film winds down, including sub-plots about Lizzie’s inheritance and threatening letters Andrew receives, it tilts toward convention.
The film’s violence happens shortly after Lizzie’s father catches her in a tryst with Bridge, implying this final rejection is what tilts her toward murder. For a film that relies on implication and subtext, such an explanation is a little too easy. When we finally witness the murders, they are memorably staged, with a sexual dimension to them. Instead of seeing the axe entering flesh, we watch the transgressive, physical demands of the murders. Lizzie looks deranged, but like she’s also in the throes of ecstasy. No one will forget the scene, so what happens before is all the more hollow.
Before most audiences could see this film, Sevigny distanced herself from the final product. She is unhappy with what Macneill brought, adding “I wanted it to be this rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece.” That is not quite Lizzie: it is too brooding and restrained for that. In terms of performances, anyway, there is plenty to admire. Sevigny was practically born for this role, while Stewart is achingly perfect as a young woman whose small facial tics betray genuine emotion. Still, the film’s staid approach may lead you to wonder what Sofia Coppola or even Ana Lily Amirpour could have done with the same material. This vision of Lizzie Borden is ultimately too timid and dispassionate to be transgressive.