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Lizzie is a chamber drama about a hatchet-wielding killer

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Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart shine in this biopic of the nursery-rhyme horror legend

Photo: Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The story of murderer Lizzie Borden is best known from the ill-advised children’s rhyme, but at Sundance 2018, she’s been given a more thoughtful, biopic-style treatment with the film Lizzie. Directed by Craig William Macneill (Channel Zero) and starring Chloë Sevigny, the film pulls from historical accounts while also expounding on Borden’s story with some hypothetical could-have-been plot developments, in the name of giving some sense and purpose to the brutal crimes.

The result is a hybrid. Part horror movie, part drama, it’s as happy to dwell on grisly violence as it is to point an accusing finger at gender norms and the disregard shown to women, presenting them as reasons behind the slaughter. In that sense, Lizzie feels like it’s designed for the current cultural moment, transforming Borden from nursery-rhyme psycho to a powerful, tragic female anti-hero.

What’s the genre?

Horror movie mixed with period drama. Early in the film, Lizzie plays up the horror aspects, with the score and shot selection calling to mind 1970s horror flicks like The Omen. Then it slowly evolves into a more conventional chamber drama — until it becomes time for murdering, that is.

What’s it about?

It’s 1892, and Lizzie Borden is a woman in her early 30s who still lives with her controlling father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie is independent — she heads off to the theater in defiance of her father, who’d prefer she stay at home rather than go out alone — but she’s also a perpetual outsider. She suffers from seizures, and she has no qualms about speaking her mind whenever it suits her. Both of which make her parents, and 1890s society in general, more than a little uncomfortable.

Then the family welcomes a new live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart, with an effective Irish accent), and she and Lizzie quickly become friends. Both women suffer under Andrew’s grotesque, arrogant dominance. For Bridget, that means nightly visits where she’s sexually assaulted; for Lizzie, it’s a constant stream of insults and abusive behavior, including killing her pet birds and serving them for dinner. Soon the friendship between the two women becomes something more, and as tensions rise, Lizzie discovers that her parents might be sending her away, while putting her inheritance under the control of her scheming uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare, playing the role with slimy relish). Given the odds against her, she resorts to extreme measures.

What’s it really about?

The way men marginalize women and subvert their agency in order to maintain power. Lizzie’s father and his friend John are opposites, financially — Andrew is successful, while John is always scraping by — but they both prey on the women in their lives. Even Abby, largely portrayed as an evil-stepmother stereotype, resents Andrew and calls him out for his nightly assaults against Bridget.

Lizzie represents everything Andrew fears: independence, fearlessness, and an unwillingness to defer to him simply because she’s been told that’s how things are supposed to be. When he discovers Lizzie and Bridget’s developing relationship, his fear is amplified. And while murder is an extreme response, the film makes it impossible to interpret them as anything but Lizzie asserting herself against an oppressive evil, no matter what the cost.

Is it good?

The movie is engrossing, with Sevigny delivering a fierce performance that inspires empathy in spite of — or perhaps because of — the awful things the audience knows Lizzie will eventually do. The romance between Lizzie and Bridget is largely sketched out with lingering looks and accidental brushing of hands, but Stewart and Sevigny do a lot with a little, really delivering on the idea that these are two outsiders who each feel they’ve found someone that finally understands them, even in the awful world they live in.

Given the movie’s horror leanings, much is made of the murders themselves. The killing sequence is horrible and chilling, and not just for the violence itself; the way the acts affect both women is more disturbing and more memorable. But while Lizzie does a strong job of leading up to and explaining possible motives for the killings, it loses its way afterward. It becomes not a look into the life of Lizzie Borden, but a more traditional re-creation of the trial and what happened afterward. It’s as if once the murders go down, screenwriter Bryce Kass didn’t know what story he wanted to tell. As a result, Lizzie follows its strong first two acts of wind-up with a true-crime series conclusion.

What should it be rated?

Full-frontal nudity, extreme violence (by way of hatchet), and lots and lots of blood? Yeah. Definitely R.

How can I actually watch it?

The film is working on a distribution deal, but negotiations are reportedly ongoing with three different companies, so keep an eye out for Lizzie in theaters sometime this year.