Before walking into this movie, the only thing I knew about Lizzie Borden was that she murdered her parents. But in Lizzie, director Craig William Macneill (The Boy, Channel Zero) and screenwriter Bryce Kass offer a different take on the still-unsolved killings that totally rewrites Lizzie’s narrative, casting her as a righteous heroine instead of an evil murderess. With superb performances from stars Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, this intimate drama serves as a fierce response to abuse and oppression and a seductive peek into the inner life of one of history’s most notorious killers.
In late 19th century Massachusetts, the well-to-do Borden family hires a live-in maid named Bridget (Stewart), an Irish woman with a big heart but little formal education. Lizzie (Sevigny), the family’s strong-willed youngest daughter, bonds with Bridget almost instantly, and their relationship blossoms from kind pleasantries into something much more sensual, much to the dismay of Lizzie’s domineering father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan). Meanwhile, Andrew is having business problems due to a railroad crisis, and after receiving some threatening letters, he begins entertaining the idea of putting his scumbag brother (Denis O’Hare) in charge of his finances because he doesn’t trust that his daughters are smart or capable enough to handle things themselves. But it’s not just Andrew’s financial schemes that grants Lizzie the moral high ground to eventually kill him – he’s also a serial rapist. By the time the two heroines strip naked to carry out the murders, Andrew has done plenty to establish himself as someone the world would be better without.
Sevigny is stellar in the title role, calmly rebelling against accepted norms and dishing out absolutely withering disses to high society brats and her oppressive family members alike. Stewart, an actress who’s long been underestimated due to her Twilight franchise past, adopts an Irish accent that was spot-on to my ear, and her connection with Sevigny is largely in the eyes – furtive glances between the two fly more than Lizzie’s beloved pet birds, who eventually factor into the story themselves. Both Sheridan and O’Hare bring a palpable sense of menace to their characters, playing villains that are almost cartoonish in their cruelty. Their presence, an unnerving score, a slowly-zooming camera, and the creaky, period-appropriate house that the filmmakers shot in all provide a suffocating claustrophobia for the women, who long for nothing more than to break free from their metaphorical chains.
My preconceived notions about Lizzie Borden were so hard-wired that I’d never stopped to consider if there might be more to her story, and the thing about stories like these throughout history is that they are almost always crafted by men, baking their biases into the tales as they’re passed on to the next generation. Lizzie made me wonder how many other women’s stories have been warped by societal storytellers over the years, and though the movie is set in 1892, it feels especially current in that way.
While the film’s eventual depiction of the murders is especially brutal, the fact that it depicts a woman fighting back against her oppressors and the catharsis that comes with it is another element that feels directly tied to our current post-Weinstein climate. “We live in this world, not another,” Bridget hopelessly tells Lizzie in one scene. And though they do ultimately reside in a man’s world, Lizzie Borden’s refusal to accept her dispiriting status quo is something that – though extreme in her execution – provides an inspiring message for those who may find themselves trapped in similar circumstances today. Fascinating and ferocious, Lizzie takes a legend hardened by history and blows it up from the inside, forcing the viewer to pick up the pieces and recontextualize this figure in a whole new light.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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