Lizzie–Chloe Sevigny stars as the woman accused of murdering her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August of 1892, when she was in her early thirties. The crimes led to a sensational trial, and to Borden being immortalized in the familiar schoolyard rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks/And when she saw what she had done/She gave her father forty-one.”
There have been several dramatizations of the tale, including a ’70s-era TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery. It would be glib to call this new one, directed by Craig William Macneill from a script by Bryce Kass, a Lizzie Borden movie for the #MeToo era; it would also be accurate. The motives for the killings have remained a matter of speculation over the years, and the speculations here–none of which are new–include the vulnerability of women to abuse, the financial powerless of women at the time, and the dangers of same-sex love. What’s different, this time, is how Kass and Macneill seem to be making the case that the killings could be seen as, essentially, an act of self-defense.
The cast is first-rate. Sevigny doesn’t ask us to like Lizzie, only to sympathize with her plight and to respect the straightforward defiance with which, not always wisely, she stands up to her father. Kristen Stewart plays the housemaid Bridget Sullivan, with whom it was theorized Lizzie may have been involved; her hapless terror and misery is touching. Jamey Sheridan is superb as Lizzie’s soft-spoken, feckless tyrant of a father. Fiona Shaw as the mother, Kim Dickens as the older sister and the reliable Denis O’Hare as the odious uncle round out the fine ensemble.
The style of the direction, dialogue and acting is tense, quiet and reserved in the New England manner. But the film is nonetheless full of melodramatic flourishes–public seizures and pigeon murders and sadistically-chosen dinner entrees and nude women wielding axes. The tone is sober, thoughtful, almost austere, but the filmmakers don’t skimp on the lurid thrills.