Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Kim Dickens, Fiona Shaw, Denis O'Hare
“Lizzie Borden took an ax. And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done. She gave her father forty-one.” It’s a catchy rhyme that has kept the folklore of Lizzie Borden alive in pop culture for over 100 years. However, few know the real story of Lizzie Borden. She was acquitted of the grisly murders, and neither her stepmother or father received anywhere near forty whacks. The new film by Craig William MacNeill offers a reimagining of the Borden story, based a theory from 1984 author Ed McBain which paints Lizzie as a lesbian. Bryce Kass’s script offers great insight and speculation into the troubled and infamous character that has been portrayed in films for decades. Chloë Sevigny, who stars in and is an executive producer on the film made this as a passion project.
Lizzie Borden (Sevigny) was 32, still living at home in 1892. She suffered regular seizures and constantly rebelled against her overbearing father Andrew (Sheridan) who denied their family electricity and other modern conveniences, despite their wealth. The Borden name was already mired in controversy thanks to Andrew’s shady property deals. He was also unfaithful to his wife. Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) was the latest maid hired at the Borden house and became Lizzie’s only friend. The two even became more than friends during their regular outings in the shed. It was Lizzie’s birds, then her father threatening to institutionalize her, and finally his coming between Lizzie and Bridget that made her reach for the ax.
In the end, it’s the production value and the two performances that stand out from the film as a whole.
Lizzie never asks the audience to sympathize with her. We watch in horror as the events unfold matter-of-factly. The gruesome hacked up faced of the victims seem of particular interest to the director. Shown multiple times, in close up, MacNeill apparently wants to balance the slow-moving narrative with gore to give horror fans their money’s worth. Jeff Russo’s tension-filled score also leans into the horror theme, but Lizzie is higher brow than that. It is character driven not plot point based. Sevigny gives a convincing performance, and while Stewart is good in the role it’s such a familiar part for her. Andrew Borden is a Harvey Weinstein of a different era, which certainly allows this retelling some modern cultural relevancy.
Kim Dickens (Gone Girl) is poorly cast here as the older sister. She is randomly in and out of the story and it’s never explained where she is when she’s off-screen. Denis O’Hare as the creepy uncle is not only a stereotype casting, but his character is also poorly developed. The two main focuses are the murders and the lesbian romance. The story speeds through the trial and only tells us what happen to Lizzie afterward. In the end, it’s the production value and the two performances that stand out from the film as a whole. MacNeill just can’t seem to streamline all the ideas circulating here into a cohesive film that is both entertaining and enigmatic.
Despite good performances and high production value this Lizzie Borden interpretation isn’t the most engaging piece or work.