For years, Chloe Sevigny has been wanting to play Lizzie Borden, the unmarried daughter who allegedly “took an axe,” etc., to her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.
She finally gets her wish in Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and written by Sevigny's friend Bryce Kass (whose rather skimpy IMDB page features a profile photo of Kass with Sevigny).
The story is well known and has been filmed and turned into true-crime books many times, with Lizzie's guilt debated (not everyone thinks she did it) and her motives and methods probed. Lizzie is not the definitive solution, but it's a intriguing effort with some fresh ideas, largely generated by the historical record (including the heartbreaking pigeons incident, viewers will be horrified to learn).
Every iteration of the Borden story must address three questions: Did she? Why? and How? Lizzie has good answers to all three, mostly involving the family’s new maid (Kristen Stewart), whom Lizzie befriends and her father abuses. Familiar character actor Jamey Sheridan (Sully, Spotlight) makes a good Andrew Borden, keeping him stern and despicable but also exposing the fatal weaknesses that contribute to his cruelty. As Lizzie's step-mother and sister, the fine Fiona Shaw and Kim Dickens are good as you would expect but aren't given much to do.
At the heart of the film is Sevigny’s diffident Lizzie, a good match for the actress’s confident, prickly persona. Sevigny makes no effort to seem rooted in the 19th century, whether to make the character more accessible to modern audiences or to make the point that she's ahead of her time isn't clear. But she is able to tap that undercurrent of selfishness her characters often carry to balance Lizzie's predicament between victimhood and an impulse to self-destruction.
The real revelation here is Stewart. Usually a feminist powerhouse, she's surprisingly good as the confused, pliable maid, named Bridget but called "Maggie" by Mrs. Borden to deprive her of her individuality. Bridget is based on the Bordens' real maid, who was present during the mid-morning murders but never named a killer. Also good is the typically smarmy Denis O'Hare, as Andrew's creepy brother-in-law. His scheming to get his hands on the family's fortune, extrapolated and exaggerated from the historical record, plays into the murders with a satisfying twist.
Whether the death of the Bordens is a crime of passion remains somewhat unanswered by Lizzie, however, since Macneill’s one-step-removed direction tends to mute all emotions. He seems to have urged the cast to tamp down their performances, perhaps in a misguided effort to ensure realism and dispel melodrama, so the few actual outbursts on screen are welcome jolts of energy into the often-staid proceedings.
Bottom line, though, is the treatment of the murders, which are threaded throughout the movie in flashes forward and back. When the time lines eventually converge, the killings are icily well staged. Curiously, the notorious trial that followed is barely dramatized, which seems a major missed opportunity.
Lizzie hasn't the shock value of the 1975 TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, which cast the belovedly benign Elizabeth Montgomery of TV's Bewitched against type as a heartless Lizzie and caused a sensation with its risque depiction of the killings. But Lizzie is certainly worth a visit for the morbidly curious, and for fans of the lead actresses.
Grade: B. Rated R. Starts Sept. 21 at Grail Moviehouse.
(Photos: Eliza Morse/Courtesy of Saban Films and Roadside Attractions)