Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
Even if only through the indelible children's folk rhyme, most people have at least a vague knowledge of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders she stood accused of. When Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death in their Massachusetts home in 1892 and their youngest daughter became the prime suspect, the grisly crime captured the public's imaginations. Though Lizzie was acquitted and the case remains unsolved, in the court of public opinion she was tried and convicted many times over. And despite the intervening 126 years, our attraction to her has never truly subsided.
With their moody indie drama "Lizzie," director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass transform the grisly familiar tale into a haunting romance while provocatively reframing Lizzie's act as one of liberation, literally taking an axe (er, hatchet) to the patriarchy holding her down.
In a fantastic performance, Chloë Sevigny taps into her sometimes icy screen presence to play Lizzie as a willful, headstrong young woman stifled under life with her domineering father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and shrewish stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) -- as well as a society that left few options for unmarried women of even her relatively young age.
But the heart of the story lies in Lizzie's relationship with her family's live-in maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), who moves into the Borden house six months before the murders. Despite their differing stations, the women are united by the similarly narrow paths that lie ahead of them. They also have a shared enemy in Andrew; while his relationship with Lizzie is reaching its boiling point, she learns that he's crept into Bridget's room in the middle of the night to rape her on several occasions. Leaning on one another even more, Lizzie and Bridget's friendship blossoms into a tender romance.
The Borden house is practically a prison, and Noah Greenberg's cinematography emphasizes this, frequently filming the women through windows or framing them behind railings. And that's even before Lizzie's father makes plans to leave the family fortune to her slimy Uncle John (Denis O'Hare), convinced that as women, Lizzie and her spinster older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) aren't equipped to handle their own financial futures.
Still, the film is almost shockingly subdued for such a sensational story, an unexpected though not unwelcome storytelling choice that dials down the lurid details and expected melodrama in favor of something that strikes even deeper. Realizing that the audience is fully aware of where this story must end up, Macneill uses that knowledge to draw out the tension. Though just in case, he opens the film with glimpses of the aftermath, keeping the threat of violence at the forefront of our minds. Jeff Russo's score adds an eerie charge to the film's atmosphere, remaining in the background until its banging pianos and harsh strings throw everything off kilter.
Aided by two strong performances from Sevigny and Stewart, "Lizzie" takes an unexpected path, in the process adding a new perspective to a crime that continues to fascinate us and suggesting that the fascination will only linger on.