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Lizzie Review

April 11, 2019 | Posted by Joseph Lee
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Lizzie Review  

*Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie Borden
*Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan
*Jay Huguley as William Henry Moody
*Fiona Shaw as Abby Borden
*Jamey Sheridan as Andrew Borden
*Kim Dickens as Emma Borden
*Denis O’Hare as John Morse
*Jeff Perry as Andrew Jennings

Story: Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) is a social outcast, living a claustrophobic life that’s ready to boil over. In its dark, moody retelling of the notorious 1892 axe murder of the Borden family in Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie is a psychological thriller that reveals many layers of the strange and fragile Lizzie Borden.

True crime is once again kind of a big deal in pop culture, thanks to Netflix documentaries like The Ted Bundy Tapes or Abducted in Plain Sight. It seems America once again has a fascination with the macabre, particularly if it really happened. It would be easy to say a film like Lizzie is cashing in on that, but it’s certainly arriving at a peak time of interest and with a subject that should spark some debate among devotees of America’s dark history.

For those who haven’t heard the tale, Lizzie Borden was a real woman, who in 1892 was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. It was one of those “crime of the century” cases, similar to something like the OJ Simpson trial for a modern example, in that it was all anyone could talk about at the time. In spite of the fact that she was found not guilty, there are many that still believe she did it. Most modern interpretations of the story usually paint Borden as the killer. She even got a charming little nursery rhyme out of it (“Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.”) So yeah, just proof that sometimes even exoneration doesn’t mean the public will see you that way.

This latest film takes a more, let’s say serious, approach than the versions you may have seen on Lifetime with Christina Ricci. It has a stronger cast overall, including some great character actors like Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare and Jamey Sheridan joining the two leads, Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. With a cast like that, you know they aren’t here to play around and what we get is a very dark and gloomy approach to what is definitely a dark and gloomy Gothic tale of murder.

It also follows the theory set forth by mystery author Ed McBain in his 1984 novel of the same name, that suggested that Borden had a lesbian relationship with Bridget Sullivan, the discovery of which is what led to her killing her father and stepmother. As such we get the depiction of the relationship here, and the movie sets about making Borden a very sympathetic character. She’s almost the prototype of a feminist of sorts, if you can believe that. This movie’s Lizzie stands up to her father’s commands quite often, has no problem teaching another woman to read and write and being seen alone in society, something that’s not considered “proper.”

I’m not sure you want to equate that kind of a message with this kind of a character, but that’s the story they go with. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s probably tone deaf at best, problematic at worst to make someone accused of being a cold-blooded murder a sympathetic enemy of the patriarchy. There are plenty of feminist icons throughout history, perhaps we don’t need to lionize Lizzie “40 whacks” Borden as one of them.

Either way, Sevigny does an admirable job of bringing Borden to life and making her someone that’s flawed but ultimately worth following towards a tragic end. Knowing what she’s going to end up doing (or is accused of doing, since no one will ever know for sure) makes her portrayal here all the more sad. Her chemistry with Kristen Stewart is also palpable as Stewart gives what has to be considered one of her finest performances. The two play off each other very well and give the viewer a sense of wanting the story to end differently, while knowing it won’t. That makes it all the more sad. Not everything is black and white, love can be found in the strangest of places.

The performance of the movie has to go to Jamey Sheridan, who plays Lizzie’s father Andrew. It’s another case of making her a sympathetic character, as they go the opposite route with her father. It should be no surprise to anyone that Sheridan, who has played many screen villains in his day, plays a complete scumbag of a human being here. There’s not a lot to like about his character and that’s the point. He does a great job of getting you to hate him quickly.

The entire movie builds to a climax that you know already if you’ve read anything about the history of the case. Or even if you read the little jumping rope rhyme I mentioned above. It’s a biopic with liberties taken, so while this review won’t spoil every single detail, it’s a matter of historical record. Either way, the depiction of the ultimate fate of Lizzie Borden and her family is clinical and matter-of-fact. The director shoots the murders with the same dispassionate attitude that Lizzie has in carrying them out, which feels like it was by design. It’s like they’re trying to make you culpable in the crime just by being a witness. The ending will definitely be the most talked about scene when this movie has ended.

There are some questionable tone choices with Lizzie when dealing with its subject matter, sure. But if you can ignore that and let yourself be drawn in by the performances, you’re in for a treat. Then you’re in for a brutal and cold finale that show you just how horrific the real world can be.

Lizzie will be available exclusively on Shudder starting April 11.

The final score: review Good
The 411
If you can get past a somewhat tone-deaf portrayal of someone who could be a cold-blooded killer, Lizzie is a movie worth watching. It's filled a murderer's row of great performances and a take on a story that's unlike the previous depictions previously brought to the screen. It's proof that real life horrors are often the strangest, especially considering how this tale ended.

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Lizzie, Joseph Lee