The 1892 Borden family axe murders have fascinated America for well over century. A cause celebre at the time, the lack of any guilty verdicts for any suspects has lead to years of speculation. Lizzie, Craig William Macneill’s dramatisation of the killings, has no such ambiguity, placing the crime squarely at the feet of prime suspect Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny). Opening on the immediate aftermath of the act, the film then flashes back six months to examine what exactly drove Lizzie to hack up her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw).
Rebellious up to a point, Lizzie feels trapped in the stifling confines of her father’s house, and though the arrival of new housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) perks her spirits up, it’s not long before Andrew is sexually assaulting Bridget and inviting Lizzie’s perverted uncle (Denis O’Hare) to rewrite his will. These vile humiliations set a murderous plan in motion, and Macneill and writer Bryce Kass do a very smart job throughout the film of gradually setting up every little factor that will eventually exonerate Lizzie.
Lizzie is a great role for the perpetually underserved Sevigny, who also serves as producer, and she inhabits this rage and frustration-fuelled character with gusto. Her relationship with Stewart’s Bridget is well-drawn, but Stewart’s performance is on shakier ground. Generally so reliable, her brilliance can get lost here behind a distracting Irish accent. Lizzie and Bridget’s faltering, doomed romance brings out the best in both the actors, but there isn’t enough time dedicated to it as Macneill and Kass struggle to settle on any particular genre.
Lizzie should be thrilling, a proto-feminist fable of two women killing their powerful male abuser and then getting away with it thanks to the same societal misogyny that forced them into the situation in the first place (an all-male jury didn’t believe a woman would have the stomach for such murders). Yet, it’s oddly inert, its mash of genres and non-linear structures robbing it of pace and urgency. The atmosphere can also suffer when the whole film creaks up against its obvious budgetary constraints. Aside from a nasty scene of a pigeon massacre, there’s not much to raise the pulse, even as the finale gets gorily and sexually explicit, a curious and unnecessary restraint shown throughout.
As a star vehicle for Sevigny, Lizzie does its job, but you can’t help but want more from it. It arrives in an environment where its story feels both relevant and very of its time, and in not leaning far enough either way, it robs itself of a lot of potential power. There’s not too much that Lizzie does badly, exactly, just that there’s also quite a lot that it doesn’t do particularly memorably either.