Chloë Sevigny plays infamous axe killer Lizzie Borden in director Craig William Macneill’s chilling drama.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one”
Expanding on the deadly playground rhyme, Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie inserts a salacious amount of love, cruelty and family drama. Not necessarily in that order, but the effect is all the same. There will be blood on that hatchet.
The film begins where this story must: at the crime scene. Blood splattered on the delicate curtains, dainty walls and wooden furniture. The deceased are found in their wealthy but austere New England home. It was not a happy household, and their problems far predate the horrors now staining the floors. After Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) calls for the family’s maid, the story jumps back to when Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) first walks into the Borden’s darkened home.
The severity of this home quickly becomes apparent. Lizzie’s father and step mother did not bother to learn Bridget’s name, so she is referred to as Maggie after an earlier employee. Later that night, at the opera, Lizzie fends off society gossip over the fact that her dad doesn’t believe in indoor lighting. Oh, the scandal!
From here the film only grows darker. There’s a serious illness, workplace sexual assault, abuse and matters of inheritance looming over what will finally lead to the heinous crime. When the opening scene is revisited, wherein Lizzie discovers the bodies of her parents and calls for Bridget to help her, the film debunks the audience’s assumptions about the old folk rhyme. Thank goodness we don’t need to sit through 40 whacks.
Unfortunately, the film never quite crosses that line into campy territory, merely teasing what a less serious treatment of Lizzie’s story might look like. That absurdist style is perhaps best scene in the momentous killing scene. For some reason, the women have figured out that it is easier to wash blood off of skin rather than clothes, so the murders happen when the killers are naked. Now there’s a visual, and one that the camera focuses on quite astutely.
Although the costume and production design are spot-on, not everything quite fits seamlessly into the film’s contrived plot. Because of the disassociation in Sevigny’s performance, her character’s salacious affair with Stewart’s mild-mannered servant is lukewarm most of the time. However, the film is at its most fascinating when the power dynamic between employee and employer comes to the fore. It’s a gentle dance, one where the poorer of the couple is more aware of being exploited than the thoughtless one already in power.
Or, does Lizzie know just what she wants out of her time with Bridget. The film hints at a possible answer, but it’s vague. We’re left to make up our own mind about the events in this story, and whether or not the women’s love was as true or fake as that old rhyme.
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