★★★ out of ★★★★★
Andrew Borden : You’re an abomination, Lizzie.
Lizzie Borden : And at last, we are on equal footing, father.
Directed by Craig William Macneill
That pretty much sums up 2018’s Lizzie — a fascinating little dive in to the horror/not-horror genre — complete with a big bag of father/daughter tension. Lizzie follows the very real story of Ms. Lizzie Andrew Borden. Yes, her middle name was Andrew, and no, the heavy metal band of the same name didn’t come first. Lizzie is, of course, world famous for her alleged ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Now 127 years later, all popular lore tells us is that Lizzie was an ax wielding maniac who “…gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”
Director Craig William Macneill takes a subtle and quiet approach to unearthing the real story behind the whacking, the chopping, and the parental intrigue. The film is exquisitely shot and stays well with in its lane. Out the gate Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) is portrayed as a somewhat troubled young woman with a fiercely independent streak. This burgeoning independence continuously erupts in the face of her domineering and vile father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan). Lizzie is hell-bent on challenging social norms and the clumsy discipline that’s laid down by her father.
As Lizzie’s intra-family dynamic begins to come to a boil the family decides to hire a new servant Maggie (Kristen Stewart). Lizzie and Maggie are instantaneously drawn to each other. Lizzie shows her the ways through the knot-hole of overbearing New England puritans, and Maggie does every thing she can to soften the blows of Lizzie’s personal problems. Lizzie begins to tutor Maggie in basic reading and writing, and the pair begins to tutor each other in a bout of bawdy sexual experimentation.
What begins as a basic drama involving unmoving familial objects, slowly and inconspicuously evolves in to a dark portrait of the underbelly of the American family bond — or lack thereof. Lizzie comes to learn that she and her sister will receive nothing in their father Andrew’s will. Lizzie pays back her father’s greedy movements with a staged robbery of the family’s immediate possessions. Andrew begins to have an awkward sexual relationship with Lizzie’s paramour, Maggie. In this case, the kids are not all right, nor are their parents.
The final act of Lizzie involves Lizzie and Maggie slowly and methodically carrying out the murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. While the film is a little vague about when the plan was developed, or who developed it, it’s a plan nonetheless, and Maggie and Lizzie follow it in the most thoughtful way possible. To avoid having the blood splatter on their clothes both Lizzie and Maggie strip completely bare. This peculiar non-sequitur escalates the tension and puts forth the most raw and vile behavior squarely on the table. Even though Maggie takes a run at the chopping, she’s unable to complete the task, and it is ultimately Lizzie the does the deed.
While I appreciate that the film doesn’t acquiesce to the shiftless needs of a Hollywood audience, it does tend to play every single scene with a lack of vim and vigor. A film that’s a slow burn is perfectly acceptable, but when you couple that with characters that are largely monotone, it leaves too much unsaid. The other major concern with the film is the fact that it hints at a couple instances of mental illness, but only on the most coy and uncommitted ways. Given that this monumental piece of cultural lore has never been fully understood, it would have been nice to land on one side of the fence or the other. All we’re left with is that Lizzie likely did some chopping with an accomplice, but we kind of already knew that.
Lizzie is rated R and available for streaming on Shudder.