We all know the broad strokes of the Lizzie Borden story. She was well-born American maiden accused of mercilessly murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. Though she escaped conviction, she was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion. And frankly, she was probably flat-out guilty too. Yet recent adaptations of her story have painted this alleged ax-murderer as a violent, feminist heroine. In the Christina Ricci TV movie Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the Chloë Sevigny-fronted Lizzie, Borden’s murdered father becomes the sneering—and soon to be shattered—face of the patriarchy, chastising his daughter’s willful spirit, exerting sexual violence, and repressing her Sapphic desires. Ricci’s version ran full-on into camp to make something twisted yet undeniably delicious from this morbid American fascination with Borden. But Sevigny’s Lizzie attempts a straight-faced and sinister tone that manages to be shocking only in how dull it is, even while being laced with full-frontal nudity and graphic violence.
Directed by Channel Zero’s Craig William Macneill, Lizzie focuses on the salacious theory that Borden (Chloë Sevigny) murdered her parents to protect her lesbian romance with the family’s 25-year-old live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). Beginning with Bridget’s arrival, the film splits focus between her cautious bonding with Lizzie, and Lizzie’s growing frustration with her father over a variety of issues, including her inheritance, her social life, and his plans to lock her away in a sanitorium because of seizures that rack her body and make her a public embarrassment. But when Mr. Borden discovers Bridget and Lizzie hooking up in the family’s barn, that’s the final straw.
Lizzie strikes an oddly stern tone. Despite Bryce Kass’s script calling for steamy scenes of Sapphic sex, as well as bloody ax murderers committed by a fully nude killer, the film strives to bleed any sense of theatricality from the story. Sevigny, who is also a producer on the production, delivers a performance that is determinedly enigmatic. Perhaps, this is meant to brew a slow-burn tension as she engages with Bridget. Maybe you’re meant to question her motives. But this vagueness makes their romance less steamy, more soggy.
The love story central is woefully undercut by casting on both ends. Sevigny is confoundingly wooden. Kristen Stewart is miscast as a docile baby-gay bewildered by her attraction to Lizzie. Even hiding her signature smirk, it’s impossible to forget Stewart’s signature mischievous charisma. Thus, it’s impossible to believe Bridget is as naive and shocked as she often seems. And speaking of casting, Kim Dickens is wronged as Lizzie’s sister Emma, a role so meager it could have been just as easily excised entirely.
It’s astonishing how boring Lizzie is. The pieces are there for it to be something sickly satisfying, reveling in the rumors, scandals, and blood that have long haunted the Borden case and the American fascination with it. The leading ladies are known as riveting performers. The subject is rich with intrigue. The script offers dark details, some real, some absolute fiction. Yet, Macneill’s direction utterly fails to bring this deadly tale of intrigue and taboo to life.
Often the kind of sternness seen here occurs in biopics that offer a ferociously fawning respect to its subject, sanctifying them through a somber capturing of their most noble moments. But Borden is not this movie’s hero, to be redeemed through bringing her secret struggles into the light. Instead, we’re invited once more to ogle her, not just her life and alleged crimes, but also her bare body, and confounding mind. We’re welcomed into the chilly and dark Borden house to leer once more at the carnage committed to the heads of two parents, murdered unceremoniously and viciously in their own home. We’re asked to share in Bridget’s enchantment of this world, where pleasures and horrors are intimately intertwined. But the stoicism in Sevigny’s portrayal couples with the lifelessness of Macneill’s approach, and bars us from feeling truly submerged in the broiling emotions of wrath, lust, love, and greed that likely led to murder.
Lizzie hits theaters September 14.
Header Image Source: Saban Films