by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 20, 2018

Director Craig William Macneill’s Gilded Age true-crime thriller Lizzie assumes the stance common to most mainstream historical accounts and dramatic depictions of Lizzie Borden. Namely, it takes as a given that Lizzie hacked to death with a hatchet both father Andrew Borden and stepmother Abby Borden (née Gray) at the family’s Fall River, Mass., home on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass don’t offer some convoluted alternative theory of the crime, at least with respect to the most fundamental questions of who, what, when, and where. In the filmmakers’ conception, Lizzie Borden was absolutely the whack-happy murderess that many biographies and a children’s folk rhyme have long insisted. (In contrast, author Frank Spiering proposed that Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, had a window of opportunity to commit the slayings, a theory that requires her to be dashing implausibly through the events of that late summer day, like Ferris Bueller scrambling to get back into bed before his parents return home.)

Having accepted the conventional historical wisdom vis-à-vis Lizzie’s guilt, Macneill’s film is primarily concerned with the why of the crime. On that score, the approach that Lizzie takes is a kitchen-sink one. The sensationalistic centerpiece of the film is a furtive lesbian tryst between Lizzie and the Bordens’ Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan – a baseless bit of speculation that appears to have originated with crime author Ed McBain’s 1984 novel Lizzie. However, the necessity of keeping this relationship secret is but one of the motives that drives this cinematic incarnation of Lizzie over a homicidal cliff. Macneill’s feature piles all the burdens, injustices, and humiliations of being a late-19th-century woman onto Lizzie’s shoulders, and then watches in glassy horror as she grows to regard the grisly murder of her own family as the most sensible egress from her intolerable situation.

Lizzie, then, is something of a revisionist feminist reimagining of the crime, one that regards its titular hatchet-wielder as a stand-in for all abused, marginalized, and de-humanized American women, past and present. This ambition unfortunately doesn’t quite match up with the film’s characterization of Lizzie, who, as portrayed by Chloë Sevigny, possesses a calculating inscrutability that clashes a bit with her ostensible ur-victimhood. Both approaches – the anti-heroic feminist fable and the ambiguous character study – are arguably meritorious, but they co-exist awkwardly when crammed into the same feature. This sort of unfocused storytelling is a recurring stumbling block for Lizzie. McNeill’s feature turns one of America’s many Crimes of the Century into a drab, ponderous melodrama-cum-legal thriller, circling back again and again to the same fateful August day to no discernible end, either dramatically or thematically.

Indeed, the film’s looping structure – while superficially the most novel aspect of Kass’ screenplay – turns out to be its most conspicuous weakness. The feature opens in the immediate aftermath of the murders, as a photographer captures the ghastly details of the crime scene and constables question a visibly dazed and detached Lizzie (Sevigny). As the story skips forward through the investigation and Lizzie’s ensuing arrest, trial, and acquittal, it also flashes back to some six months prior, and then repeatedly to the morning of the murders. Each time Lizzie revisits the events of Aug. 4, 1892, it reveals additional details about how the filmmakers imagine the crime might have been committed. The aim is obvious: In theory, this chopped-up structure allows them to conjure an aura of snaking mystery around a relatively well-known historical incident. In practice, it mostly just feels like a cheap and pointless way to squeeze some Rashomon-lite curlicues into an otherwise blunt tale of murder most foul.

A more straightforward chronological narrative – one that condensed the aftermath of the crime to a brief coda – might have been more successful, given that Lizzie is at its best in the long, doom-drenched flashback that leads up to the titular character’s bloody ax work. Here the film benefits from Macneill’s almost gothic approach to the material, which eschews more heavy-handed, allusive foreshadowing in favor of pure mood: a dire, suffocating atmosphere of entrapment that portends inevitable ruin. Unmarried adult sisters Lizzie and Emma (Kim Dickens) dwell with irritable, miserly father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and puckered stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) in a roomy but draughty New England house. A self-made capitalist with interests in textiles, furniture, and property development, Lizzie’s father has elbowed his way into the city’s new-money elite, but he still clings to his class resentments and a kind of performative frugality. (Refusing, for example, to upgrade the family home with electric or even gas lighting, insisting that candles be used.)

Andrew’s rancorous pride often clashes with Lizzie’s determination to do as she damn well pleases, but the antipathy between father and daughter runs deeper than a mere personality conflict. Everything about her father repulses Lizzie, from his callous business practices to his marriage – after the death of Lizzie’s own mother – to a woman whom she regards as a gold-digger. For his part, Andrew is plainly threatened by Lizzie’s intelligence and independence, and he leaps at every opportunity to belittle her and arbitrarily assert his dominance over her comings-and-goings.

In the months preceding the murders, the already-tense Borden household is sent into a slow tailspin by the arrival of the new live-in maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a demure young Irish immigrant whom Mr. and Mrs. Borden condescendingly re-christen “Maggie.” Andrew immediately sets his lecherous eye on Bridget, and his nocturnal visits to her attic room are plainly heard (and studiously ignored) by the other members of the household. These sexual assaults only deepen Lizzie’s loathing of her father, but they also push her closer to Bridget, who responds to the other woman’s freely given courtesy, warmth, and frankness. It soon becomes apparent that there is an intense, ineffable erotic spark between the women, which in turn only amplifies Lizzie’s icy rage toward her father.

Her discontent reaches a breaking point when her stepmother’s oily brother, John Morse (Denis O’Hare), appears on the Bordens’ doorstep. Lizzie overhears her father’s intention to name John his primary heir, on the condition that he provide for his spinster step-nieces after Andrew and Anny pass on. To have no say in her rightful inheritance is galling to Lizzie, but to be under the thumb of “Uncle John” – a failed horse trader who, it is implied, molested her as a child – would be an outright horror show. And so, hemmed in on all sides by detestable family members and Gilded Age conventions, Lizzie begins to formulate a bloody plan of liberation, drawing Bridget into her scheme with a disquieting combination of romantic and classist cajoling.

There is, admittedly, plenty to admire in Lizzie, starting with Sevigny’s excellent performance, a marvelous mélange of boldness, wariness, vehemence, and droll contempt that hints at her character’s ahead-of-her-time personality. Kass’ dialogue isn’t especially accomplished, with the conspicuous exception of the low-key insults that Sevigny spits out like vinegar candy, as though her Lizzie were a Jane Austen heroine who had been drained of all sparkle and self-amusement. Underneath her “modern American lady” demeanor, however, is something strange and unfathomable, a murmur of psychopathic blankness. It reveals itself at the uncanny intersection between Lizzie’s calm disposal of blood-spattered evidence on one hand, and her frenzied hacking into the ruined pulp of her father and stepmother’s bodies on the other. It is glimpsed, memorably but briefly, when her uncle visits her jail cell during the trial: Dismissing John’s attempts to threaten her, Lizzie reminds him with a menacing twinkle that he is alone in a locked room with an accused hatchet-murderer.

Visually and aurally, Lizzie is most memorable when it leans into its horror inclinations, repurposing the elements of the gothic into a sort of gloomy, Puritan riff on Edith Wharton. In particular, the chilling sound design and the unnerving score by Jeff Russo (Fargo [2014-17]; The Night Of [2016]) establish a mood that can only be described as brittle; one senses the setting’s upper-crust New England formality veritably quivering with pent-up calamity and violence. At one point, the thunderous clamor of a black, horse-drawn carriage appearing out of the night gives Lizzie a jump-scare, in a moment that recalls turn-of-the-millennium gothics like Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mary Reilly (1996), and From Hell (2001). Elsewhere the film’s tone is more uncanny, adopting a flat surrealism that evokes horror-adjacent European directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. In a bracing sequence that brings to mind the latter filmmaker, Macneill slowly pans around Abby Borden’s sunlit bedroom to reveal Lizzie standing silently in the corner, completely nude and hatchet in hand.

Aside from these vivid stylistic components and Sevigny’s intricate lead performance, Lizzie doesn’t do much to distinguish itself, either as a morbid slice of feminist mythmaking or as a brooding work of psychological portraiture. The film is, ultimately, a substantial but somewhat flavorless serving of true-crime sordidness, served up with arthouse trimmings but not much inspiration or imagination. Neither Macneill nor Kass bother to develop the film’s themes except in the most literal-minded, clunky manner. For example, while a queer romantic infatuation drives the plot (in part), the film offers no insights or observations regarding what it means to be a lesbian in late-19th-century America. Lizzie and Bridget’s relationship is simply there, one of many cogs slowly moving Borden into position to fulfill her gruesome destiny. Other potentially intriguing aspects of the story, such as Lizzie’s epilepsy and panic attacks, are simply abandoned when it’s determined that they are not germane to the stale domestic, criminal, and courtroom drama. The film’s more evocative formal gestures and senseless structural trickery mainly serve to highlight the flat-footed ordinariness of Lizzie’s story, which – given the extraordinary historical facts and mysteries that undergird it – feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Rating: C+