Although most people only know the basics of the story, the tale of Lizzie Borden is a familiar part of the fabric of American mythology. On Aug. 4, 1892, the thirty-two-year-old Borden murdered her wealthy father and stepmother at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, with an axe. She became a celebrity for the crime, for which she was tried and acquitted. Her deed never faded from the public imagination.
With Halloween drawing near, it would be tempting to view a film about Lizzie Borden as a horror movie with a crazy-eyed, axe-swinging lady coming for you in your nightmares. What writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Macneill have created does indeed follow many tropes of the thriller genre, but we see the world through the eyes of Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny). The horror aspects of the film pertain to the way women are boxed in and made helpless, particularly in Lizzie’s era.
Her father Andrew ( Jamey Sheridan) serves as the villain of this film. After the death of Lizzie’s mother, Andrew’s marriage to Abby (Fiona Shaw) perturbs Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens), who feel that Abby and her family are coming to strip the Bordens of their fortune. Andrew stalks the house, his big frame filling the small rooms, emotionally abusing Lizzie and sexually abusing Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), the Irish maid who stays with them and with whom Lizzie has found companionship.
Lizzie’s options to protecting herself, Bridget, and her fortune are so limited as to be suffocating. She clearly suffers from mental health issues in addition to seizures, which prevent her from being more of a socialite. By the time she picks up the axe, we view it not as a result not of madness but as a woman choosing one of the few options for autonomy that are available to her.
The murders bookend the film. They appear first in flashback, adhering closely to the reported facts of the case. The script then takes us back three months and works its way up to the murders, this time pursuing alternative possibilities as to what happened, focusing on the love affair between Lizzie and Bridget. The theory that they were lovers, and that the murders were inspired by Andrew’s moves to squash the affair, is not a new one, but moves that theory into a prominent place in the narrative, suggesting the two women were life preservers for one another. Like everything in the film, their secret is handled tastefully with an understated touch.
Ultimately, the movie suffers for its inevitability, not only because we are so familiar with the murders, but because Macneill leans a little too heavily on the familiar mechanics of a psychological thriller. Its portrayal of Andrew Borden is so villainous that he veers into caricature, and several scenes too plainly convey the themes or foreshadow future events, following a too well-trodden path.
But the film is nonetheless handsomely staged and superbly acted. Stewart and Sevigny are two of our finest and most adventurous actresses, both in the roles they choose and the way they approach them with a combination of mystery and fearlessness. Any movie featuring this duo inevitably invokes a thrill. — Robert Ker