The story of Lizzie Borden, the 32-year-old woman who allegedly butchered her family with an axe in the late 1800s, has been told countless times in film and on television, and the Fall River, Massachusetts woman has become a mainstay of urban legend, even inspiring a grisly nursery rhyme. But Craig William Macneill offers a fresh take on the Borden killings in Lizzie, positing the accused murderess (Chloe Sevigny) as a headstrong woman and closeted lesbian so fed up with the patriarchy that she… well, you probably know the answer.
This version begins six months prior to the incident, when Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) arrives at the Borden household to begin her tenure as the family’s maid. The rest of the family refers to their new servant as “Maggie,” but Lizzie insists on calling Bridget by her given name, and seems to be the only member of the family to regard her as a human being. Indeed, Lizzie’s stepmother (Fiona Shaw) forbids Bridget from accessing the second floor of the house unless expressly told to do so, and her miserly husband Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) rarely acknowledges her existence – except for those late-night visits to her bedroom, where he admonishes her to “be a good girl” before climbing atop her.
Meanwhile, Lizzie’s uncle (Denis O’Hare, especially slimy) conspires to become executor of his brother’s will, under the guise that he will be best positioned to provide for Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie sees right through this scheme and knows that with her father out of the picture, she’ll be left with no inheritance and no means of survival. Mr. Borden already views his daughter with an abnormal amount of disdain, thanks to a struggle with epilepsy that leaves her prone to “fits” and deemed unworthy for marriage, and broaching this subject only serves to enrage him further.
As the rift between Lizzie and her father grows, so does the attraction between Lizzie and Bridget. What began as a furtive glance from across the room escalates into clandestinely-passed notes and late afternoon walks, not to mention a beautifully shot, erotically charged sequence where Bridget helps Lizzie button her dress, and both girls strive not to let their desires take over. But the budding romance hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the maid’s sudden dismissal from the residence is the proverbial final straw.
Lizzie opens in the aftermath of the murders, but audiences won’t actually see these events unfold until well into the film’s second half. Macneill uses the somewhat leisurely pace to build copious amounts of tension for the big moment, and when it arrives, it’s even more shocking than one might have imagined. Sevigny’s work in these sequences is astounding, giving herself over to righteous fury and transforming into a primal, rage-fueled creature fixated purely on vengeance. Stewart also impresses as the anguished young maid, forced to endure unspeakable cruelty in hopes of making a better life for herself, and exceedingly thankful for even the smallest bits of kindness and humanity that she finds in Lizzie.
Lizzie is heavily influenced by old-school horror flicks, with the soundtrack emphasizing the creaks and groans of the ancient house and the soft glow of a candle turning a hallway into a mass of imposing shadows, and Macneill’s slow-burn approach may not work for everyone. But thematically, it couldn’t arrive at a better time: as we witness Andrew Borden’s demise, it’s hard not to envision in his place any number of rich men who used their power to subjugate and sexually abuse women, and even harder not to cheer when Lizzie, a blood-soaked vision of feminine rage, emerges from the carnage.