The dark, historical melodrama Lizzie is not for the squeamish. Granted, nobody squeamish would be interested in a movie about notorious accused axe murderess Lizzie Borden in the first place. Just be warned: we get to see (and hear) every one of those fabled “whacks.”
But what’s more profound in Craig William Macneil’s atmospheric retelling of the tale (and more timely) is its somber portrait of patronizing male power and long-simmering feminine fury that lead up to the famous climax. It’s almost irresistible to assign a feminist slant to the story of a spinster accused of killing her domineering father (along with her stepmother). But while Borden was acquitted of the crime at her trial, history is still unresolved about what actually happened on that sweltering August day in 1892.
This encourages Macneil and scriptwriter Bryce Kass to submit a plausibly researched version of events as they might have played out, and why. In this, they are influenced by Chloe Sevigny, one of the producers of the movie (along with Kass), who also stars as Lizzie, in a project she has been trying to get made for years. History may not officially assign blame for the Borden murders, but Sevigny and Kass meticulously build a case for their candidate, while keeping the audience guessing right up to the end. Only a crawling narrative pace and repetitive last act mar the film’s effectiveness.
The well-to-do Borden family of Fall River, Massachusetts, is introduced through the eyes of heir newly arrived Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Stoic matriarch, Abby (Fiona Shaw) runs the household for her iron-willed husband, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), who dabbles in real estate and manufacturing, and Andrew’s two adult daughters, Emma (Kim Dickens) and Lizzie (Sevigny). Unlike her tractable sister, Lizzie is rebellious at heart; she defies her father by going out to the opera unescorted, her only “respite,” she says, from Andrew’s tyrannical rules at home.
Andrew’s tyranny soon extends to his possessive attitude toward Bridget, on whom he forces his sexual attentions night after night. But Bridget finds a kindred spirit in Lizzie, who teaches the young Iris hwoman to read, and the two of them dare to become friends. But tension between Lizzie and her controlling father (he acts out against her pet pigeons when she displeases him) are further roiled by the arrival of slippery “Uncle John” (Denis O’Hare), brother of Andrew’s deceased first wife, into whose grasping, unreliable hands Lizzie fears her father is going to turn over management of the sisters’ large inheritance.
In Macneil’s hands, it all proceeds like a horror movie—as befits these horrific events—but a slow, stately one, as the intense psychological drama unfolds. Large, sparsely furnished rooms are silent as the furtive camera peeks around doorways and down long, gloomy passages. Mysterious messages of foreboding are discovered throughout the house. Music is either sepulchral, or nervy and frenetic, designed to keep viewers on edge.
But pacing finally becomes a problem. While each shot is artfully composed (kudos to cinematographer Noah Greenberg),
way too much time is spent, say, lingering over fabric, buttons and lace (signifying, I suppose, how literally corseted the women are). When Lizzie and Bridget’s friendship blossoms into physical attraction, the pivotal moment loses some of its impact because the filmmakers can’t bear to tear themselves away—just as they spend a little too long inviting us to study the gruesome makeup job on one of the hacked-up corpses.
And once the culprits are revealed, we return to the crime scene over and over again, from various viewpoints, while the audience grows more and more restive. It’s a frustrating hiccup at the end of a generally persuasive and thoughtful portrait of gender and power.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, and Jamey Sheridan. Written by Bryce Kass. Directed by Craig William Macneil. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 105 minutes.