Is Lizzie a tragic love story ? A proto-feminist statement? A slow-burn historical drama? A lurid tale of sex and murder? It’s all of those things, and none of them at the same time. It’s a film that’s very deliberate in its choices, but doesn’t seem to have thought them all through. And it’s a shame, really, because putting Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny on screen together was a wonderful choice—one that doesn’t deserve to be drowned in a torrent of confusing, implausible, and just downright dull ones.
The film’s premise is a combination of speculative history and fiction, positing that Lizzie Borden (Sevigny) was involved in both a financial dispute with her wealthy-but-stingy father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), and a secret affair with family maid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) in the weeks leading up to the murder of her father and stepmother. (Neither of these things have been definitively proven or disproven by historians, for the record.) Lizzie also depicts its title character as something of a feminist hero, an intelligent, headstrong woman who chafes against the repressive social and legal structures of her time. However, it doesn’t seem to have considered how, in its lust to punctuate the story with some shocking gore and full-frontal nudity, it may have ended up taking an ax to its own structural integrity.
The first section of this oddly structured film is all whispered secrets and unspoken tensions, a slow-burn (and sometimes just plain boring) setup of the many potential motives for the crime. We first meet the thirtysomething Lizzie as she’s stepping out to go to the theater by herself, a positively scandalous act for an unmarried woman in 1892. She’s in her seat enjoying the show when she suffers an epileptic seizure, which Andrew uses as a pretense to keep his restless daughter closer to home. Already a social outcast due to her father’s frugality—he refuses to install indoor plumbing or electric light in the Borden family home, calling them “extravagant”—Lizzie’s isolation is all but complete when she accuses her shady uncle John (Denis O’Hare) of plotting to write Lizzie and her also-unmarried sister Emma (Kim Dickens) out of Andrew’s will.
Enter Bridget, who the rest of the family calls “Maggie,” a generic, dehumanizing name given to all the Irish maids who work for the Bordens. (In real life, Lizzie participated in this practice, but that’s not exactly conducive to what follows in the film.) Bridget is new in America and utterly friendless, and bonds with the similarly lonely Lizzie when Lizzie decides to teach Bridget how to read and write. Soon, they’re passing notes to each other all day long, and the tension between them builds and builds until it explodes into open-mouthed almost-kisses and desperate fumbling in the barn. If their secret is discovered, it’ll be all over for both of them. Bridget will be cast out and forced to survive on the streets, and Lizzie will be locked away in an asylum (rebellious women frequently were, for offenses as minor as “novel reading,” in the late 19th century). Complicating things even further is another secret: Andrew is sexually abusing Bridget, and may have done the same to Lizzie.
That’s what’s implied, anyway. Rarely do the characters in Lizzie say what they really mean, and, combined with director Craig William Macneill’s claustrophobic mise en scène and paranoid sound design—footsteps are loud and echoing, and voices muffled—it gives the film an atmosphere of suffocating repression. The score, alternately evoking the chirping of cicadas and tree branches scraping across glass, attempts to manufacture tension throughout the long middle stretch, but goes horror-movie shrill far too early. Sevigny’s performance, while effective in raising questions about Lizzie’s inborn potential for evil, is subdued to the point where she sometimes appears to be in a trance, leaving Stewart to bring all the passion to their forbidden affair. (Which she can easily pull off, along with a pretty good Irish accent, but that’s not the point.)
Then, the act itself. Lizzie continues to pull its punches through the aftermath of the murders and Lizzie’s trial, first showing little more than a splatter of blood on richly patterned wallpaper. It then circles around to tell and re-tell the events of August 4, 1892 in bits and pieces, until an explosion of violence toward the very end of the film. By that point, however, the big reveal is more frustrating than cathartic, as the righteous anger has long since dissipated along with the sexual tension. Not that either of those things justifies a double homicide. But at least they’re interesting to watch.