If Lizzie feels particularly poignant in the wake of the 2016 election, it’s not because it’s newly relevant: it’s because it feels freshly futile. A two-hour dramatization of flagrant disdain for women and the corrosive effects of male privilege? Sounds a lot like a presidential debate.
Those who aren’t up on their true-crime history may be surprised to discover that the new Lizzie Borden biopic doesn’t end with a hanging. Borden was 32 in 1892, when her father and stepmother were killed with an axe in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. The instantly infamous Borden was tried, but not convicted, for the crime. The family had a 25-year-old Irish maid named Bridget, who was in her third-floor bedroom when the murders were carried out downstairs.
The case has been less of interest to historians than to novelists, filmmakers, and kids skipping rope. Borden’s story has been told on Broadway, in ballet, and in opera. The band Lizzy Borden named their 1984 debut Give ‘Em the Axe.
Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass take the story as a parable about patriarchy. The Borden house is portrayed as a quiet, tidy house of horrors that pushes Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) to the breaking point. Her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) is a monster who hides and berates his daughter, who says that in his eyes she’s a “pervert.”
What precisely that means is something we instantly suspect, then see confirmed as a relationship blossoms between Lizzie and Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Andrew has his own designs on Bridget, enraging his daughter as he exploits the maid’s vulnerability. His other violations, in which his wife (Fiona Shaw) is largely complicit, include but are not limited to threatening his daughters’ access to their rightful inheritance — and wielding, in a unsubtle scene of foreshadowing, the very axe that will eventually find its way into his forehead.
While artfully shot by Macneill and cinematographer Noah Greenberg, the gothic domestic drama unfolds along predictable lines, but eventually the movie picks up steam as the moment of mayhem nears; after Borden is arrested, a flashback shows us Lizzie’s version of events.
It’s a capable and aptly feminist rendering, but Macneill’s deliberate, even tasteful film squanders an opportunity to really let these two icons of their respective generations (X and Y) really strike sparks. What would Quentin Tarantino, latter-day master of the gloriously garish revenge fantasy, have done with this story? Or what if the movie was made by — now here’s a crazy idea — women?