Everyone knows one thing about Lizzie Borden: she brutally murdered her parents with an ax. And while it may not have been 40 whacks, but it was enough to make her parents look unrecognizable. While most believe Borden murdered her parents because she was most likely a sociopath, director Craig William MacNeill has another theory. Similar to last year’s My Friend Dahmer, Lizzie attempts to humanize the murderer. She must have had some reason to kill her parents. What if Lizzie did have a reason for axing her father and step-mother? Like perhaps her father was an abusive, homophobic rapist who believed that Lizzie was an abomination? That might be a very good reason to kill someone.
MacNeill and writer Bryce Kass go with that theory in Lizzie. Set a few months before the infamous tragedy, the film illustrates the struggles of being a woman in patriarchal society. Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) is an older woman who is still unmarried and living in her father’s house. She has a step-mother that she doesn’t get on with and a merciless father who rapes the servants and thinks his daughters worthless. When a new maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), comes to the house, Lizzie forms an intimate relationship with her. But it isn’t long until her father finds out and tries to separate them forever.
MacNeill and cinematographer Neil Greenberg implement creative stylistic choices. They make the house look like a prison, intricately framing each woman to look like they’re in a small space or behind bars while the man of the house is constantly in large, open areas. They take their time concentrating on the women’s faces, illustrating how unhappy they are. When Andrew goes in to rape Bridget, the focus is on what she’s experiencing, and when he weasels back into his wife’s bed after, the camera closes in on her repulsed facade.
Ever since her debut in Harmony Korine’s Kids, Sevigny has played almost every character imaginable. It’s refreshing to finally see her in a leading role with range and emotions. In the beginning, Sevigny puts on a snarky persona around the blue bloods (she asked a woman if she was an Edison because she was ridiculing Lizzie’s lack of electricity). But for the rest of the film, her eyes are distant and cold as if her body is just an empty husk. When the film plays out the murder, we see Sevigny naked and trembling, ready to kill like an animal hunting for its prey. The only time she shows true happiness is when she kisses Bridget for the first time, and even then, that goes away rather quickly.
Stewart continues to prove that she is a force to be reckoned with. Her subtle performance doesn’t give away much about her character, but it doesn’t really matter. Her presence brings light to every scene as she symbolizes Lizzie’s salvation.
The themes of female passivity and patriarchal dominance envelop the film, but it doesn’t keep the story from feeling hollow. The film might’ve been a compelling character study, but the script lacks substance. At one point, the film replays the murder in its entirety, showing exactly what happened. That scene defeated the use of any mystery surrounding the murder and gave the audience useless exposition that no one asked for.
As Lizzie tells Brigette, “Men don’t have to know things. Women do.” That sentence encapsulates everything that the film is trying to say. It’s about two genders at war with each other, and how women aren’t given a fair shot in any regard. Lizzie knows more than people thinks she does and proves it by concocting this murder. Macneill could’ve illustrated that intelligence more clearly. Borden may have been a murderer, but MacNeill’s sensitive direction hints at there being something more.