There’s a lot we know about Lizzie Borden, but there’s more we don’t. We know she was tried for the murders of her father and her stepmother in 1892. We know she never married, and we know she remained in Fall River, Massachusetts until she died of pneumonia, aged 66. Yet, despite the children’s folk rhyme that insisted Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks, we still don’t know if she did it. We can only speculate. Historians, writers, and filmmakers have speculated for years.
In director Craig William Macneill’s new slow-burn, atmospheric drama called simply Lizzie, there’s a different take on the affair. Not unlike mystery writer Ed McBain’s approach in his 1984 book, also called Lizzie, where the daughter of Andrew Borden was caught in a lesbian tryst with the maid by Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby, screenwriter Bryce Kass explores a similar theme but creates different circumstances.
The film begins with the now overused technique of starting with something alarming with an added sense of mystery in order to draw immediate attention, then cuts to an earlier time, introducing principle characters while slowly revealing events and motives that will eventually circle us back to where it began.
It’s August 4, 1892, and the murders have already occurred. “And you didn’t see anyone else enter the house?” asks a detective of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) at the inquiry. “Did your father have any enemies?”
The film then cuts to six months earlier. Shy Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart with Irish accent) is hired as a housemaid by the stern sounding lady of the house, Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw). Within minutes of her arriving and opening her bag in her small, upstairs room, daughter Lizzie enters and greets the new hire. They’ve only just met, yet in an uncommon moment of silent, uninvited intimacy, Lizzie reaches out and tenderly adjusts the maid’s hair. Though nothing further occurs, already there’s a feeling of something unspoken having just developed between them.
History has suggested that Lizzie’s father was a strict, demanding, and frugal man who kept a tight grip on his money while dictating his daughter’s every behavior. In Lizzie, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) insists, “You’ll not leave this house unaccompanied,” as his daughter readies herself for a night at the theater, alone. But the severity of his demands is matched equally by Lizzie’s stubbornness and her determination to be as independent as possible. “Midnight, no later,” he finally relents.
The film’s tone and that opening have already established that the brutal ax murders of Andrew and Abby were committed by daughter Lizzie, but what follows is a series of events suggesting why, and why housemaid Bridget was complicit. After telling the maid, “We wouldn’t want to lose you,” he enters her room at night and fondles her body through the sheets. And later, when letting Bridget know how sorry he is for the news of her mother’s passing, he leans into her. For a moment, Bridget looks away, not only to deter the man’s slow, leering advances but to glance at something on the floor. From the maid’s point of view, we see an ax, resting in a bucket.
Later, angered by overhearing her father’s future plans for what should be the inheritance of Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) Lizzie steals some of her step-mother’s jewelry and exchanges it for money at a pawn shop. But when her father discovers what has happened, he grabs an ax, and as punishment proceeds to chop the heads off of Lizzie’s pigeons nestled in a garden shed while Lizzie looks on, helpless to stop her father.
When Lizzie and Bridget steal a private, sexually intimate moment alone, Andrew spies them together through a window. “You’re an abomination, Lizzie,” he later tells his daughter after informing her he’ll soon be giving the maid her notice. “On what grounds?” Lizzie demands. “I don’t need grounds!” he replies.
The murders, when they eventually come, are grisly and brutal. While they’re not quite the forty whacks of the children’s folk rhyme, they remain violent, repeated blows, enough to render Andrew’s face virtually unrecognizable. History records that the stepmother suffered eighteen, maybe nineteen blows. Andrew Borden suffered eleven.
The film mixes events that were recorded as facts on that day, things the authorities know for certain had happened and seamlessly weaves its own mythical version around those confirmed occurrences to the point where it all seems perfectly logical. But rather than tell its tale in a chronological order, the film jump-cuts.
As with that unnecessary technique used at the beginning where Lizzie is already under suspicion for acts we have yet to see, the final thirty minutes skips around, cutting between the court case, the murders, back to the courtroom, Lizzie in a cell, talks with another shady family member, Uncle John (Denis O’Hare) about the whereabouts of a missing will, further reveals of the murders, then back again to the courtroom. It feels awkward. Plus, the jury’s verdict regarding Lizzie’s fate is only revealed in titles once the film is done. It removes a sense of release required after having invested the previous hour and forty-five minutes going through all the emotional ups and downs and family confrontations.
But there’s beauty to be seen in Noah Greenberg’s widescreen cinematography, and good performances from its three principle leads; Sevigny, whose rage behind her eyes tell us everything; Stewart, who here successfully, and thankfully, sheds her earlier Twilight image; and Sheridan. His persuasive portrayal of an immensely unlikable and hypocritical character convinces us that while his murder must always be considered unforgivable, the way the film frames his behavior, we nevertheless understand.
MPAA rating: R Length: 106 Minutes