Craig Macneill's Lizzie is hardly the first media project to push forward a lesbian spin on the 19th century Fall River, Massachusetts murder mystery surrounding one Lizzie Borden, she of the legendary forty and forty-one whacks purportedly inflicted upon her ever-dominating parents. In 1984, Ed McBain's provocative novel also entitled Lizzie suggested that Lizzie had killed her parents after being discovered in a lesbian tryst with Bridget, the family's live-in maid.
It's this theory, however, that is at the front-and-center of this latest exploration of a murder mystery that continues to intrigue and captivate partly owing to the whimsical, yet factually inaccurate, little poem that immediately comes to mind anytime anyone mentions the Lizzie Borden axe murders.
Screenwriter Bryce Kass (Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs) and director Macneill (The Boy) have crafted a supremely haunting and nearly gothic romantic tale that practically bathes in director Noah Greenberg's extraordinary use of natural lighting and off-kilter framing of Sevigny's fitfully vulnerable Borden. If you're looking for a film that draws you in emotionally, Lizzie may very well disappoint you as Lizzie more immerses you into the emotionally and physically muted world of Borden, a world where the entrance of an Irish immigrant maid, played sublimely by Kristen Stewart, adds color and spark to an otherwise lifeless and suffocating existence.
Lizzie, while introducing us to the murders of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby (Fiona Shaw), takes us back to months before the murders when Bridget, who is referred to as Maggie by all in the family home except for Lizzie, arrives for work and an unexpected spark of sorts is established between she and Lizzie. It is this spark that seemingly adds fuel to the fire raging inside Lizzie, a 32-year-old outcast whose inability to find a husband supports her parents' belief that she is incapable of managing her own affairs. Constantly under her father's threat of being "sent away" for her defiance and socially aberrant behavior, such as attending the theater alone, Lizzie's willingness to impulsively push her father's buttons only intensifies as we become familiar with the seemingly reserved yet beast-like Andrew, who doesn't take long to initiate nightly "visits" to Bridget's living quarters.
Lizzie is yet further proof that Chloe Sevigny is one of America's finest, yet most under-appreciated, actresses working today. She continues to be one of the most immersive, multi-layered actresses working. She is capable of both tremendous subtlety and broad dramatics, yet seldom if ever strikes a false note along the way. Here, she wisely avoids the histrionics so often associated with this story and instead creates a captivating tale of a young woman whose repression speaks volumes and whose actions, whether guilty or not, came from the same discipline in which she had been forced to live her life.
The same is very much true for Kristen Stewart's Bridget, underplayed more than one might expect from Stewart, the character's life coming primarily from Bridget's intimately tense encounters with Lizzie. Both women are vulnerable, their vulnerabilities intensified by increasingly stress-filled happenings within the household and the casually inflicted cruelties doled out precisely by Andrew. When the dastardly deed finally plays itself out in longform, it's a mesmerizing scene to behold and played less with graphic violence and more with a sense of emotional purging.
Yet, for all the ways in which Lizzie seems to quietly work, it's a nearly undeniable truth that Lizzie also largely squanders its opportunity to do something really special with this material. Lizzie isn't a bad film, the performances alone demand to be watched, yet neither is Lizzie actually a good film.
Lizzie is, perhaps, a "good enough" film.
A huge part of the problem lies in the film's almost stunningly anti-climactic ending, an ending which very nearly unravels as Lizzie winds down from the dramatic highs and aching vulnerability of the key sequences with a return to the muted, lifeless sequences that preceded it all and a devotion to procedural exegesis that lacks anything resembling excitement.
For the revelatory work of Sevigny alone, Lizzie is worth a view. As a modestly budgeted indie, Lizzie accomplishes many amazing things along the way despite a handful of structural flaws that mute the impact of an already muted story. With Stewart also doing top notch here along with the rest of the film's ensemble cast, Lizzie is a film that squanders its chance for greatness and settles for a healthy dose of "Oh my goodness!"
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic