Psychological Thriller LIZZIE doesn’t land any blows.
DIRECTED BY CRAIG WILLIAM MACNEILL / 2018
Lizzie Borden’s story is one of America’s original ‘celebrity murder cases.’ Her trial and its attendant publicity would catapult her into a sort of national infamy. O.J. Simpson never got a nursery rhyme based on his misdeeds, did he? Lizzie, written by newcomer Bryce Kass and directed by horror veteran Craig William MacNeill (The Boy, Channel Zero: Candle Cove), tells the story of Lizzie Borden’s life in the months leading up to the murders and offers a possible explanation as to who killed her parents and why. The problem is that Lizzie doesn’t do a very convincing job at selling its story.
Lizzie doesn’t do a very convincing job at selling its story.
Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry) as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart (the Twilight movies) as Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s new maid. Fiona Shaw (Violet Dursely from the Harry Potter movies) and Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight, Sully) play Lizzie’s ill-fated parents, Abby and Andrew Borden. Kim Dickens (Gone Girl) shows up as Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, and Denis O’Hare plays Lizzie’s Uncle John, a sketchy low-life whom Andrew, nevertheless, wants to place in charge of the Borden estate should anything befall the patriarch.
History is still uncertain as to whether or not Lizzie actually did kill her parents or not. She was acquitted at her trial (the all-male jurors couldn’t bring themselves to believe a woman of Lizzie’s standing could commit such a heinous act). But the prosecutors never named another suspect.
What Lizzie is looking for in Lizzie is a degree of independence. She’s a woman in her thirties, who’s still living at home and she still needs to obey the will of her stern father. Lizzie chafes at his insistence that if she wants to go out to a play, she cannot go by herself. Her father is concerned at how society will see her- and by extension her family- if she isn’t seen with a companion. And perhaps he has other concerns as well. In the movie, Lizzie isn’t well, as she suffers from occasional sensory overload and seizures.
Lizzie suffers one such seizure at the play she attends. When she is brought home to convalesce, she is cared for by Bridget. When she was first hired, Lizzie was the only member of the household who cared enough to ask Bridget what her real name was (everyone else just calls her Maggie).
Lizzie and Bridget grow close over the next few months. Lizzie teaches Bridget to read and write. And Bridget provides Lizzie with some much needed company. Over time, the feelings of tenderness the women have towards one another begin to blossom into love and physical attraction.
Unfortunately, Lizzie isn’t the only member of the household who has become infatuated with Bridget. Andrew Borden begins to make repeated visits to the maid’s room in the middle of the night where he rapes her. Everyone, even his wife, knows he’s doing this, but no one will challenge him on this. Lizzie places broken glass in front of Bridget’s door one night, but as satisfying as the sounds of him howling in pain were, it was only a temporary respite.
Lizzie suggests it was this repeated abuse that eventually drove Lizzie over the edge enough to want to murder her mother and father with an axe. And she didn’t use a big Shining-style axe, either, but more of a hatchet- this was up close and personal. History tells us (the nursery rhyme notwithstanding) that Abby Borden was struck 18 times on her head, and Andrew suffered 10 or 11 times. Despite some convincingly gruesome effects work, the film doesn’t treat these killings as simple slasher-movie fair. Despite the premeditated nature of the crime, there’s raw passion and rage when Lizzie finally lets it all out.
Lizzie wants us to believe that the bond between Lizzie and Bridget was so strong, it would lead to a double axe-murder, but the movie doesn’t do enough of the hard work to help the audience make that leap. Part of the problem is Stewart. She’s a better actor than her most famous role (Bella Swan in Twilight and its sequels) suggests, but she just isn’t very good here. It’s a tricky role that requires a large gamut of emotional responses, but she doesn’t hit many of the notes she’s required to.
killing people with an axe- well, that’s a terrible thing, isn’t it?
The other part of the problem is in the grisliness of the crime itself. Yes, the two women loved each other, and yes, Andrew Borden (as depicted in the movie) was a rapist and a monster. But… axe murder? If you’re going to ask me to go there, you’d best be prepared to make some compelling arguments. I, for one, am satisfied with the likes of Harvey Weinstein losing his position, his prestige, and if he serves jail time, so much the better. I don’t think even he deserves 11 whacks to the head and face with an axe.
Lizzie, the movie, doesn’t really seem to want to take a side on the matter, either. It seems to say in turn that Lizzie was totally justified in what she did, but then again killing people with an axe- well, that’s a terrible thing, isn’t it? Peter Jackson’s 1995 film Heavenly Creatures dealt with a similar crime. Jackson made it perfectly clear that no matter how the girls in his movies felt towards one another and how close they had become, their decision to murder someone was a horrible tragedy. You could empathize with them, and see how their thought processes could lead them to kill, but Heavenly Creatures never suggested that the murder was anything but awful.