Somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain, you probably recall the old sing-song nursery rhyme about the infamous 19thcentury murderess Lizzie Borden: Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41. Cheery stuff.
Well, one of the big revelations of director Craig William Macneill’s revisionist retelling of that macabre Massachusetts crime in his moody new indie, Lizzie, is that the weapon used for the bloody deed wasn’t so much an axe as a short-stemmed hatchet. The two other major surprises are that a.) Lizzie had a little help from her family’s Irish housemaid with whom she had a lesbian attraction, and b.) that as lurid as the tale is, sitting through Macneill’s somber movie version is like watching ye olde paint dry.
As slow and disappointing as the film is, it’s bound to at least grab some wanna-see buzz because of its casting. Chloe Sevigny, with her signature air of icy hauteur, stars as Lizzie. And Kristen Stewart, more passive and watchful than we’re used to seeing, plays the Borden’s Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Still, despite the presence of those two very different but equally compelling actresses, neither can breathe real life or drama into what’s a bleak and suffocating snooze. Macneill wants Lizzie to be a blood-curdling meditation on patriarchal oppression and female empowerment, but he never quite pulls it off.
Set in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892, Lizzie introduces us to the wealthy Borden family run by an overbearing father (Jamey Sheridan) and his shrewish second wife (Fiona Shaw). Their stately home is a place of creaky floorboards, antiseptic sunlight, and dark unspoken secrets. In this atmosphere of Yankee austerity, Sevigny’s Lizzie sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s a caged free spirit, defiant towards her controlling stepmother, and prone to epileptic seizures. She yearns for some small bit of freedom and passion in her drab, preordained life, which is prematurely pointed toward spinsterhood.
With the arrival of Stewart’s Bridget, Lizzie finds a kindred spirit despite – or perhaps because of — their class differences. She’s someone that Lizzie can confide in, commiserate with… and more. But under the thumb of her domineering parents, it quickly becomes clear that’s something’s gotta give sooner or later. The film slowly builds (very slowly) toward its inevitable blood-spatter confrontation (which, I guess interestingly, takes place in the nude). But by the time the climactic act of violence finally arrives, there’s barely enough patience left in the viewer to feel any real sense of catharsis or liberation. Just exhaustion. C