By Janine Gericke.
Lizzie Borden’s infamous story is horrifying. On August 4, 1892, Borden’s father and stepmother were found bludgeoned to death in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie was arrested for the crime, but ultimately acquitted. According to the end credits of Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, the all-male jury determined that a woman was just not capable of such an act. Although Lizzie Borden’s story isn’t new, Macneill gives the film a new feminist spin by centering on the alleged relationship between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and her Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). This film’s stunning cinematography and captivating cast, worlds away from the series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015), should be enough to get anyone to the theater.
Sevigny’s portrayal of Lizzie is some of her finest work. Her Lizzie is headstrong and independent, a woman who is completely capable of anything. Stewart plays Bridget as a restrained and reserved rule-follower. There is definitely more to these women than meets the eye. When Bridget arrives at the Borden home, Lizzie’s stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) tells her that she will be referred to as Maggie. Lizzie of course ignores this request and calls her by her given name. The women have an immediate connection – two outcasts who become fast friends. Lizzie even teaches Bridget how to read. They become protective of each other and gradually the relationship grows into something more. When Lizzie realizes that her father is going into Bridget’s room each night and assaulting her, she gets her revenge by breaking a mirror and placing the pieces in front of Bridget’s door. Her father screams as he steps on the broken pieces, and we see a slight smile on Lizzie’s face. The fact that this man feels that he can use his power over both Lizzie and Bridget is sickening.
Lizzie has all the elements of a superb but subtle horror film, complete with an eerie score full of piercing violins and even the use of a music box. The sounds of the home have a sinister effect, with creaks in the wood and heavy footsteps in the middle of the night. This is no surprise given that Macneill and Greenberg previously worked on The Boy (2016) and the first season of the Nick Antosca‘s television series Channel Zero (2016- ). The end of Lizzie, which graphically shows the murders, is a full-on horror film. Sevigny (spoiler alert) completely nude – no longer wearing her restricting corseted dress – creeps into her unsuspecting stepmother’s room. Just as her stepmother turns around, Lizzie brings down the hatchet. When Bridget can’t go through with killing the father, Lizzie takes the hatchet from her and goes berserk. All you see is the blood splatter, all you hear are the sounds of a cracking skull. Bridget runs to the other side of the room, trying to hide her face from the evil in front of her. She can’t escape it and neither can we.
DP Noah Greenberg’s cinematography is dreamy, full of slow pans and gorgeous compositions. Many shots are composed within a window or doorway, with the actors not quite centered and in soft focus, which feels both artistic and voyeuristic. The camera spends a lot of time close up on the women, usually to convey their disturbed reactions to the men in the film. In fact, the two men these women have the most contact with are Lizzie’s overbearing father (Jimmy Sheridan) and her vile uncle John (Denis O’Hare). Greenberg’s use of natural light, with candles and oil lamps, is quite romantic, with just a hint of disquiet. These techniques help to build the film’s tension, revealing only enough when we know there is so much more going on.
Mcneill’s iteration of Lizzie Borden is a perfect fit for 2018. I can understand why Sevigny worked so hard to bring this film to the screen. This is the story of two women who decide to take action together, though in the most extreme way possible.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.