Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she decided to screw the maid and taker her case to court, where she ostensibly won. At least that’s how the poem goes in what feels like the 100th version of Lizzie’s story in Lizzie, premiering exclusively on Shudder…
…As recently as 2015, we watched Christina Ricci hack her way through her family in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, followed by a TV series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Like the many Manson Family incarnations, Lizzie Borden is a tale so familiar, that there just isn’t much new to tell. Lizzie does try at least, with mixed results.
Directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) from a script by Bryce Kass, Lizzie features an exceptional cast, with Chloe Sevingy playing the title character, who finds herself in a forbidden romance with newly acquired maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). With their father tormenting both of them and threatening their relationship, Lizzie begins a slow descent into madness and, well, you probably know how it goes from there.
To be fair to the film, Lizzie offers a slightly different take than its predecessors, focusing more on a non-consensual love triangle between Lizzie, Bridget, and to a lesser extent, Lizzie’s father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), who is less loving, more rapey, and wants Bridget all to himself. Horror fans won’t be excited to hear that, and, well, Lizzie just isn’t that exciting of a movie. This is not your traditional psychological horror film, but more a Jane Austen novel with a splash of blood. Watching Lizzie is like lighting a mile-long fuse on a bundle of TNT. We eventually get to that impressive explosion, but yeesh, does it take some patience to get there.
Keeping the film from becoming a snooze fest are the performances, especially those of Sevingy and Stewart. Both actresses are as daring as I’ve ever seen them in this film, with moments in the finale that will make your jaw drop. In my mind, Stewart has come a long way since the Twilight franchise, and has established herself as a fascinating actress. Stealing the show though is Sevingy in the title role, portraying Lizzie as less insane, and more of a strong woman with feminist ideals, who has those ideals shoved back in her face until she can’t stand it anymore. Captivating, brave, and oddly sympathetic considering the role, I’m not quite sure how to feel in rooting for Lizzie, but Savingy certainly does a great job in getting the audience to that point.
Sheridan deserves a lot of credit as Andrew Borden as well. An abusive father who continuously takes sexual advantage of Bridget, Sheridan brings a certain level of reptilian coldness to the role. We can practically hear him hiss as he says to Lizzie, “you’re just another girl that’s ripe…you’re nothing”. His scaly words never fail to boil the blood of the viewer, and Lizzie, making him a wonderful villain, if you can buy into viewing Lizzie as someone we should care about. Lizzie has a strong feminist bend, with all of the men in this film coming off as awful bastards, making it all the more delicious when Lizzie enacts her vengeance.
The treatment of Lizzie, a woman plagued by seizures (which end up playing very little into the plot), leads her to become bolder and bolder with those around her. Which again, is done quite effectively in getting us to cheer for Lizzie, yet the question of whether or not we should see her as the hero bothered me the whole way through, since this story is based on actual murders. But that’s the bold question which Macneill and Kass are asking in Lizzie, and you’re either on board with it or you’re not.
As for the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, which the film heavily revolves around, well, to say it’s lacking would be an understatement. We really don’t get a lot of these two women interacting positively, which undercuts the believability that either cares about each other as much as we’re lead to think. This is where the film really suffers, because the film chooses to rest on the romance between these two and, despite the strengths of the two actresses, the entire thing feels forced.
When the violence does come, though, it hits us like an axe to the face, which some of the characters could tell you a thing or two about. Besides some gratuitous pigeon beheading early on, the film is entirely lacking in any sort of carnage until the finale, which finally reveals what happened in a flashback during a courtroom scene. Without spoiling, what we witness is an incredibly provocative display of pre-meditated carnage that is bloody, suspenseful, and deeply satisfying. For many, the final breakdown of Lizzie will come much too late, but for those with patience, the ending is more than worthwhile.
Lizzie is not for those looking for a fun slasher or enticing slow burn horror, though it is an intriguing historical drama with some powerful messaging and a splash of blood. Macneill’s film fumbles the second act and never quite gets a grasp on the most interesting parts of Lizzie’s story, but ends up shocking the audience after all with an ending you won’t soon forget.
By Matt Konopka