The murders have already been committed by the time Craig William Macneill’s “Lizzie” opens, two bodies lying dead in the cursed Borden family home in Fall River, Massachusetts, a shell-shocked Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) being questioned by the police, and a terrified young maid (Kristen Stewart) milling at the corners. A revisionist take on a classic American legend that’s already gotten plenty of revisionist takes (the Lifetime channel alone made one film that proved so popular that the cable outfit turned it into an entire limited series), Sevigny’s longtime passion project infuses new insight into the story of Borden and her 40 whacks, but a listless quality keeps it from exploding into the kind of drama necessary for a story rooted in so much rage.
In Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass’ script, Lizzie is a willful woman (Lizzie was 32 at the time of the murders, a detail many seem to forget), one who takes her pleasures where can, from the theater to caring for her pigeons. Her father Andrew, a multi-millionaire in today’s dollars, was a real cheap bastard, eschewing modern luxuries like electricity and indoor plumbing. Lizzie’s life hasn’t turned out as she hoped, and her independent nature and lingering epilepsy turned her into an old maid at a young age, one threatened by her father’s cruel streak and the prying eyes of Fall River society.
When Irish maid Bridget arrives at the Bordens’ creaky, peeling house, Lizzie and Bridget form a fast bond and embark on a daring and forbidden love affair. But while Sevigny is fully present in her role and Stewart smartly cedes the best moments to her co-star (the movie is “Lizzie,” after all), the pair simply don’t generate the necessary heat to inspire violent passions. Even with all the furtive glances and breathlessly passed notes and at least one attempt to make buttons seem sexy, they never push beyond feeling like warm acquaintances. It’s hardly the kind of thing to inspire the lovers’ pact that this version of events relies on, and one that dilutes later revelations meant to undo someone as strong as Lizzie.
That Lizzie would have reasons for offing her parents beyond some of the ideas thrown out during the trial — she was in a fugue state, or that perhaps her father abused her — isn’t a terrible surprise, and “Lizzie” is compelling enough to dig deeper into her possible motivations. Yet repetition grinds “Lizzie” to a halt, and the film lacks anything resembling energy, cycling through the same beats until something happens only because it has to.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
As Andrew Borden, Jamey Sheridan forms a fine villain, the kind of character that can make just one shift in the body or light step forward feel as threatening as someone holding a gun to your head. The rest of the cast, however, is mercilessly wasted, including beloved character actors Denis O’Hare and Kim Dickens, alternately only available to be “the creepy dude” and “the suspicious sister.” That’s to say nothing of what’s done to Fiona Shaw as Abby, who is gifted a single moment of grace before receding into the background and waiting to die.
“Lizzie” works best when it leans into its roots as a classic horror story – loud noises rattle Lizzie and later prove to be nothing, a particular pitch of the score makes an everyday moment seem sinister, weird letters show up on the Bordens’ doorstep – but much of the film is oddly inert. It just doesn’t move, even when we know what it’s moving toward, both because we know the story and because Macneill has already shown us what’s to come.
At least it looks good, with cinematographer Noah Greenberg’s camera slyly gliding over important elements (that first shot of the hatchet, just sitting there in the bucket) and often approaching Lizzie herself with a voyeuristic eye without being salacious. Later, during a jaw-dropping nude scene that sees both Sevingy and Stewart stripping down before whacking the Bordens, Greenberg and Macneill maintain a similar tone – the nudity is interesting and necessary, neither cheap nor exploitative.
As thrilling as it is in the moment (and is it ever), it also serves to highlight how often the rest of the film lacks such snap. It’s the kind of respectful insight into Lizzie’s mind — and her presumed crimes — that the film needs far more of, a sharp crack to the system, and proof enough that even well-tread crimes have new blood to spill.
“Lizzie” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.