To start, I’d just like to say that I actually love the concept behind The Boy and Channel Zero director Craig William Macneil’s acerbic take on the Lizzie Borden legend, Lizzie, and was looking forward to it given that it seemed to be the standout Massachusetts-set film of this year’s Sundance.
It’s well thought-out: There’s little quarter given to the idea that the 19th century was a place of chivalry and respect for the women who inhabited it, and we’re given a heavy glimpse into just precisely how suffocating and awful it must have been to be a woman in that era just a few years past “marrying” age, with a seemingly-untreatable illness and a sexual orientation that could get you institutionalized for either. In that regard, at least, Lizzie is an utterly terrifying and damning portrait of its era in American history, and when payment for sins rendered comes due, it is, at the very least, satisfying.
There is a Grecian righteousness to Borden’s hand when she brings the axe down across her father’s face, splitting his head open much like an unknown god did to Zeus, so that a cunning and feminine wisdom might be freed. And on that metaphorical level, the film succeeds, assisted along by two of our strongest actors working today: Chloe Sevigny, who plays Borden, and Kristen Stewart, who plays an Irish maid named Bridget (though she’s given the name “Maggie” by Borden’s father and step-mother, to help codify her as a disposable servant) that Borden falls in love with.
Both provide fearless performances, with Sevigny deftly demonstrating the fierce intensity behind Borden’s eyes, and Stewart embodying the conscience-struck accomplice. The murders themselves are their own feat of bravery, as Borden and Bridget perform them in the nude (and anybody who has spent any time on a movie set knows how fucking difficult even a minor scene in the nude is), and they’re captured well, full of the necessary brutality at the heart of the story. There is more than enough here for Macneil to craft a compelling and fascinating story, and it’s a shame that he can’t do anything with it. Lizzie is a pretty solid example of what happens when you take a deeply pulpy urban tale of terror and transform it into “respectable horror” for a mainstream audience, and boy oh boy is it a long and terrible bore.
Part of Macneil’s troubles come from the garish and disjointed structure imposed on him by screenwriter Bryce Kass, which attempts to conceal the facts of the murders as he interprets them over the course of the course of the film. This bullshit mystery box doesn’t work at all, given that a chronological version would excise something like 15 minutes or so from the final product (including perpetual retreads to the day in question) and give other scenes real weight, like when Lizzie speaks with Bridget in her jail cell near the end of the film, that are robbed of their weight by a lengthy flashback that takes the air out of both performances.
It’s sleepily and drearily photographed by Most Beautiful Island cinematographer and Macneil’s long-term collaborator Noah Greenberg, who wishes to give the film a look not unlike Roger Deakins’ tremendous work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but falls steadily short of capturing that old-world haze that others have perfected.
The score is much of the same, full of the weird string-instrument shrieks that seemed otherworldly once upon a time but now just feel like a rote hallmark of this particular horror subgenre. All in all and despite the incredible work done by the actresses, Lizzie just adds up to nothing more than a gigantic slog, one that will only pique mild curiosity from its intended audience and snores from all others. Sevigny and Stewart deserve better.
Nick Johnston is running amok at Sundance. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Featured ‘Lizzie’ image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.