Lizzie is a powder keg movie. A small cast of characters remains confined to their grand, claustrophobic New England household, with the impending ax murders of Mr. and Mrs. Borden lurking around the corner. Director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass guide their audience with precise and tender patience as the various threads of gunpowder burn toward their explosive conclusion. A mystery, especially a real-life mystery, is a difficult story to handle. Did Lizzie Borden “take an ax and give her mother forty whacks”? The movie has its verdict. But the path to that verdict is where the real meat of the movie lies.
By far and away, Chloë Sevigny shines as Lizzie Borden. The movie quickly establishes Lizzie as brutally intelligent and capable, in a time where both her intellect and her capability work against her. She is a wealthy woman aging away from the window for marriage. An epileptic, her small pushes for freedom end in public attacks that her father, Andrew (a chilling Jamey Sheridan), uses to humiliate and demean her. Living with her silent but expressive stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and her self-effacing sister Emma (Kim Dickens), Lizzie is painfully aware that she is innately unsuited to the life she’s expected to lead. Is it because of her restlessness? Her sexuality? Or simply because of the force of her pride and personality? Sevigny’s performance is raw, intimate, and subtly endearing; it’s a complicated performance that does justice to a deeply complex character.
Shortly after the arrival of the Bordens’ new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), the narrative beings to focus on the connection between Bridget and Lizzie. Steward, opposite Sevigny, is solid, clear, and convincing. The chemistry between the two women, as both their characters’ affection for and reliance on each other grow, is a strong keystone for the movie to stand on.
The film’s use of space is intricate and impressive. The audience hears every creaking step in the Bordens’ time-worn Fall River house. Lizzie’s soundscape communicates paper-thin doors and rendered privacy. Static shots are frequently layered with partitions, windows, and frames, visually separating or trapping together characters in fraught, wordless scenes. In one particularly masterful moment, Lizzie sits straight-backed outside the thin sliding door of her father’s office, eavesdropping. Bridget comes out of the kitchen and spies her through the glass partition. Lizzie raises a finger to her lips. Bridget passes by with some hesitation. It’s a simple maneuver, but the sense of intimacy and secrecy it establishes is stunning. I was reminded of Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled: there’s a rich sense of this household setting that contains the story, so that the space itself develops a haunting, watchful personality.
Ultimately this is a movie about violence and desire: particularly, violence against women and desire between women. And it’s a movie written and directed by men. I think skepticism on this basis alone is well-founded. There must have been anticipation, on the part of the production team, of such skepticism, especially in our horrifically fraught moment of cultural reckoning around sexual violence and harassment. That might explain the inflexible care evident through the movie not to fetishize the women or their will-they-won’t-they romance. Restrained is the word to describe Macneill’s directorial style. Close, static shots abound, focused on the backs of necks or on character expressions.
That restraint is fitting for the bulk of the narrative—the household is carefully controlled, rife with fear and open secrets held in check. But the style fights against the subject matter in the most explosive moments of the movie. You can sense the careful hand of the filmmaker just out of frame. Macneill seems afraid to let the story run wild when it needs to. The result is a movie that’s smaller and more flustered than it means to be. Although full of obvious skill, Lizzie skirts being a seriously good movie and lands short as a beautiful, charged thriller with remarkable performances.