Have you ever heard a story and immediately hoped that someone would turn it into a movie? I have done so on multiple occasions but I particularly remember doing it the first time I heard about Lizzie Borden. I was sitting in a college literature class when one of my classmates referred to the old nursery rhyme about a woman who murdered her parents with an ax. Now there have been several movies made that focus on this bizarre story but as you can imagine they’ve really only dabbled in the horror and gore of it all. Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie gives the audience a front row seat to the brutal ax murders and the infamous suspect who is responsible for one of the first tabloid stories that captured the nation. While the latest depiction of this 19th century murder story is riddled with plenty of horrific gore it is also so much more.
Set in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is a wealthy property owner living with his wife, Abby (Fiona Shaw), and two unmarried daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie (Kim Dickens and Chloe Sevigny). Months before the murders the Borden family hires a young Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart); she and Lizzie develop a friendship and Lizzie begins giving Bridget reading lessons. Mr. Borden is a paranoid, controlling businessman, who is verbally abusive towards his wife and daughters. He forbids Lizzie from freely going out alone in fear that her epileptic spells will embarrass him and makes plans to forward his daughters’ inheritance over to his brother (Denis O’Hare) because they are incapable and will need someone else to act on their behalf. Her inheritance was Lizzie’s only hope of starting her own life but now she must convince her father that he’s making a the wrong decision. Late one night Lizzie notices sounds coming from the stairway to Bridget’s bedroom. She discovers that her father has been sneaking into the room and raping Bridget. Because she knows the opportunities that could come with having worked for the Borden’s, Bridget suffers through the abuse, keeping it a secret until Lizzie tells her what she saw. The two find solitude in each other’s friendship and it quickly turns into something more between them. The verbal abuse, signing over her inheritance and Mr. Borden’s discovery of Lizzie’s and Bridget’s forbidden love all come to a head as the women are desperate to find a way out of their situation. Just as the nursery rhyme says, Lizzie takes an ax and brutally whacks Mr. and Mrs. Borden in a gruesome murder scene.
If you’re a bit overwhelmed by all you’ve read, I know how you feel. There’s a lot going on here. Over the years, multiple theories have been created as to what could have motivated Lizzie to commit such a heinous crime. Screenwriter, Bryce Kass, threw in several circumstances that add up to an explanation for Lizzie’s actions. He also included unique and modern twists that made Lizzie’s story more relevant to today’s audiences. Some of this worked and some did not. When Lizzie is asked if her father had any enemies she coldly responds, “This is America Sir. Every man with a pulse has enemies.” It’s very clear that the writers wanted to tell this story in a way that makes Lizzie a strong, misunderstood feminist but this is where it didn’t work. I was all for this rendition until it came to the murder scene. As uncomfortable as it was to find myself sympathizing with a killer, I empathized with Lizzie and Bridget. Their relationship was extremely scandalous and forbidden at that time. When Mr. Borden sees the two of them in the barn he is so disgusted that his abuse becomes increasingly worse. Bridget’s fear of her socially important employer caused her to agree to Lizzie’s plan. Lizzie’s fear of losing her inheritance was also a strong motivator. Both of the women were imprisoned and so afraid of what could happen to them. They were also consumed with anger that this man had such control over them. But it’s hard to determine whether or not Kass was trying to paint her as a victim of her circumstances. You can paint her as a sympathetic character but in the end, she still looks her victims in the eye and brutally murders them with an ax. One of my favorite scenes in the film focuses on Bridget’s reaction to Lizzie as she is killing Mr. Borden. The original plan was for Lizzie to kill her stepmother and Bridget would then kill Mr. Borden. When Bridget raises the ax and she realizes she cannot make herself do it, she stands across from her rapist filled with horror as she realizes what she’s about to do. It’s more thrilling to imagine yourself like Lizzie, being able to attack your attacker, but Bridget was so human and genuine that her reaction resonates more.
The best and strongest element in Lizzie is the cast. Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny are excellent. Sevigny also works as a producer for the film and this has been a passion project for her for the past several years. Sevigny’s portrayal is simply captivating. It’s like she was made to play this role. Everything about her body language is chilling and closed off to anyone but Bridget. Her facial expressions are completely opposite of Stewart’s especially in their eyes. Sevigny’s eyes are void of all hope from years of her father’s abuse. Her tone of voice stays at one level for almost the entire film, and for some reason I really liked the way she did that. This added heaviness to her voice and maintained the lack of expression in her face. Stewart conveyed the opposite. Her eyes are innocent and bright. Stewart gives one of her best performances; her character as the timid and shy housemaid is so captivating. A majority of her performance is shown through her face and it is perfect for this character. It’s like she is the eyes and ears for the audience to experience the events happening inside the house. The supporting cast also gives strong performances. Kim Dickens and Fiona Shaw aren’t given a lot to do but deliver on what they were given. Jamey Sheridan and Denis O’Hare are disgustingly good as the power hungry, egotistical abusers that led to Lizzie’s rage. Collectively, the cast as a whole has great chemistry together but they also manage to excel individually.
The casting is the strongest element of this film, with the cinematography by Noah Greenberg, appearing as a close second. It is simply beautiful. The film is full of tight intimate shots that simply capture the actors’ faces. This helps you to feel claustrophobic in the tight doorways and corners of the house as they move around each other. This was a strategic move. By choosing to film this way, the audience is allowed to feel imprisoned, and just as trapped as Lizzie and Bridget. The house is such an important part of the story, so if captured incorrectly, much would have been taken away from the viewers’ internal feelings and observations.
This film is extremely interesting and engaging. It’s a shockingly sad, and mentally horrifying story. You’ll experience a number of emotions watching it. Despite the minor issue within the screenplay, it is still a fantastically made film. Sevigny’s and Stewart’s performances alone would be enough of a reason to make sure that you see it in theaters.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Craig William Macneill Writers: Bryce Kass Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chloe Sevigny, Denis O'Hare, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens Release Date: September 14, 2018 Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 46 minutes