We all know what Lizzie Borden is famous for. And even if we didn’t, Craig William Macneill opens his new film, Lizzie—an account of the events preceding, including and following her crimes—with shots of their aftermath, hatchet-disfigured corpses in pools of blood, with sprays of same on the walls above. So maybe “foreshadowing” isn’t quite the right word for what Macneill does. All I know is that the jolt of sick humor every time an axe appears conspicuously in the background of a shot during the movie’s first half is proof of the director’s impressive command of tone. Lizzie is a biopic, a horror movie, a love story, a dark comedy and more, all at once and all done shockingly well.
Chloë Sevigny stars as Lizzie who, by 1892 Massachusetts high society standards, is an “old maid” (which is even more hilarious when you realize that the real Lizzie was over a decade younger than Sevigny) whose sharp tongue and willfulness are an embarrassment to her family. Her only hope for a free and happy future lies with the inheritance she stands to receive when her parents kick the bucket. In the meantime, though, she finds joy and solace in a blossoming relationship with the family’s maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart).
Lizzie’s incredibly stacked cast is just one component of its success. Lizzie’s parents are Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw, her sister is Kim Dickens, the family attorney is Jeff Perry and, as perhaps the movie’s true villain, Denis O’Hare is Lizzie’s uncle, an ambitious and unscrupulous impediment to her receiving the family fortune.
Macneill honors a taut screenplay by Bryce Kass mostly by staying out of its way. But Lizzie’s lack of adornment serves other purposes as well. The camera follows Lizzie quietly (in that medium-shot from behind Steadicam move that seems increasingly common these days). Meanwhile, Jeff Russo’s score pipes up with swelling strings or plinking piano keys for a few moments at a time, only to fall ominously dormant again. Macneill’s background in horror shine through in these long, still spaces he leaves, allowing paranoia to flood in. Yet those same gaps in action that leave Lizzie’s world feeling so arid in tenser scenes are also where emotions bloom in softer ones.
Sound design that accentuates every brush of the fingers against cloth or hair or skin, every breath inhaled or exhaled, every clasp done or undone, makes Lizzie a lushly sensual affair despite its predominant reserve. Sevigny and Stewart throw themselves into their characters’ building love affair, whether it be demure and sweet—hiding notes for each other around the house and reading them furtively with smiles on their faces—or forceful and passionate—falling into a grasping, breathless make-out session in the barn. Their tender romance juxtaposes harshly with their otherwise grim lives.
Still, Macneill reminds us, this is a movie in which our hero is a murderer. We root for her and Bridget to find happiness together and we bristle at the demeaning, dismissive way her parents treat her. It even becomes tempting to see her eventual actions as justified. Yet Lizzie is too astute a film to devolve into some kind of revenge fantasy fulfillment. To do so would cheapen it and likely come off as an insult to the significant steps toward equality women have made in the intervening century and a quarter, especially in the last couple of years. Lizzie ultimately does more for history, women and cinema with its devotion to the muddiness of morality and the clarity, however fleeting, of love.