Film Review: Lizzie

All too bloodless.
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Director Craig William Macneill strips the sensationalism from the tale of perhaps American history’s most famous murderess in Lizzie. Think of it as the antithesis of Lifetime’s 2014 made-for-TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, which had a wide-eyed Christina Ricci hamming her way through a late 19th-century tale of parricide. Chloë Sevigny, who stars and produces here, takes a far more subdued route in this far more subdued movie. So subdued, in fact, that Lizzie is just a few breaths short of DOA.

There are kernels, here, of what could have been a better film. One respects the intent of Lizzie in taking its subject’s story and removing from it the rubbernecking and reveling in gory details present in so much of the true-crime genre. Here, Lizzie is less a crazed murderess than a fiercely independent woman constrained by the insistence of her father—not to mention society at large—that she have basically no say in her own life. Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), on top of being controlling and parsimonious in the extreme, is also a rapist. His victim is the new family maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a subject of sexual attraction—reciprocated—for Lizzie.

Screenwriter Bryce Kass wisely stops short of framing Lizzie as some sort of proto-feminist heroine—she did murder her parents in cold blood, after all—but his take on Lizzie’s life adds some much-needed dimension to a story that’s been reduced over the years to a skipping-rope rhyme for children.

If the intentions are admirable, the execution is considerably less so. Sevigny’s portrayal of Lizzie transitions over the course of the film from demanding and abrasive to borderline deadpan. And, yes, Lizzie’s spirit is being beaten down by her father, who repeatedly harps on her behavior and appearance and, Lizzie believes, has plans to ship her off to some unspecified (but no doubt horrible) locale. All the same, there needs to be some nuance to the performance to make it emotionally engaging, and Sevigny just plain doesn’t deliver. Even Stewart appears adrift, unsure where to direct the live-wire energy with which she boosted an enervating script in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper.

A lot of details are thrown out here—the death of Bridget’s mother, Lizzie’s epileptic seizures—but the frequently meandering script doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Even the burgeoning romance between Bridget and Lizzie is handled with an unsure touch, as if Kass and Macneill aren’t really sure what they’re trying to say about what the two women mean to each other, so Sevigny and Stewart will just have to muddle through as best they can. (An emotionally charged jailhouse meeting, meant to be the riveting climax of this particular subplot, just leaves one cold.)

There are disjointed elements here—a modern-leaning script, driftless performances and an overwrought score from Jeff Russo, its clanking piano more suited to an out-and-out Gothic thriller—that Macneill is ultimately unable to wrestle into a cohesive, compelling whole. The result is a dull retread of a story that deserved better.