Fact mixes with fiction in Lizzie, Craig William Macneill’s chilling portrait of alleged murderer Lizzie Borden. Or, if not complete fiction, at least speculation. Borden’s was the trial of the 19th century, garnering a riveted national audience a la O.J. as the prosecution tried to prove that Borden killed her father and stepmother with several blows of an ax. (She was acquitted.) The deaths were grisly, and Macneill doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed here. But more important to this psychological thriller is the relationship that might have bolstered Borden’s conviction that her loathsome parents must die.
The film, penned by first-time scripter Bryce Kass, starts on Aug. 4, 1892, the day of the murders. Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) screams as she discovers—or “discovers”—the bodies. Then the film jumps six months prior as the Borden family is welcoming Bridget (Kristen Stewart), the Irish servant whom Lizzie’s step- mother, Abby (Fiona Shaw), brusquely informs will be called Maggie because, you know, it’s hard to remember a new housekeeper’s name. But Lizzie insists on calling her Bridget. It’s already clear that she battles her father (Jamey Sheridan) and barely tolerates Abby. Her relationship with her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), is civil but cool. So Bridget is her chance for a genuine companion, albeit one several stations below her social class.
That social class means that Lizzie and Emma, both unmarried and in their 30s, are financially controlled by Dad, an unpopular businessman who scares up a will after receiving death threats for unspecified deeds. And he deems that control of the women’s part of the estate is to go to their sketchy maternal uncle, thus continuing to keep them under the patriarchal thumb. In the meantime, he starts raping Bridget. Lizzie regularly challenges her father on these and other matters but is ultimately kept in check with the warning that she’ll be “sent away.”
Lizzie is a passion project of Sevigny’s a decade in the making. Though she doesn’t quite pull off playing someone nearly a dozen years younger than she is, she’s steely as Lizzie, who is portrayed as an epileptic and queer woman. (Borden’s sexuality was only rumored.) She’s electric whether her Lizzie is unleashing a verbal tirade on her parents or cozying up to Bridget, who’s up for a barn-burnin’ good time. Stewart, though the far less showy character here, is also terrific, ably handling an Irish accent and portraying Bridget as meek, quiet, and unwilling to rock the boat. Sheridan’s mustache-twirling turn, meanwhile, is sufficiently evil if occasionally melodramatic.
Even though you know where things are headed, the film keeps the journey taut and tense. You’re angry for Lizzie and furious for Bridget, and the murders are horrific, a bit batshit, and satisfying in a sick way—you want the women to get their revenge, one way or another. Borden’s story has been told as many times as she swung that ax—allegedly—in everything from musicals to rope-skipping rhymes. Lizzie makes it worth telling again.
Lizzie opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cine- ma and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.