Ever since I first heard the nursery rhyme, I have been completely and utterly fascinated with the American legend surrounding Lizzie Borden. There is nothing more terrifying in our society than a woman committing murder and, during the late nineteenth century, the idea of an upper middle class woman of Lizzie’s status was uncalled for and took the media of that day by storm.
What is it about this story that continues to hold our interest? Craig William Macneill’s LIZZIE attempts to answer that in an intriguing take on the tale that builds its story upon one of the rumors that ran rampant during the time of Lizzie’s trial.
It becomes clear early on in the film that LIZZIE is a prisoner within her own home along with the rest of the women in her family. Her father, played with great aplomb by Jamey Sheridan, is a misogynistic, controlling man of his time ruled by spite. However, Chloe Sevigny’s Lizzie refuses to bend to his will and continuously defies him, which results in some rather cruel moments throughout the course of the film. In one very painful scene, the audience witnesses Andrew Borden kill Lizzie’s pet birds to serve as a lesson to Lizzie that she cannot escape his web no matter how hard she tries. This particular lesson of how far Andrew’s reach goes rears its head several times with its application towards Kristen Stewart’s Bridget Sullivan.
The true soul of misfortune is cast on Bridget throughout the course of the film, which might be the true redeeming focal point in a sea of rather unsavory and cold characters. What initially was meant to be a job to maintain her livelihood turns into something more traumatizing when Andrew Borden starts to visit her room for nightly visits. Bridget endures it because of Borden’s far reaching influence and favorable reputation in the community. When Lizzie discovers what is going on, she slowly tries to find ways to circumvent her father’s actions in order to help out the friend she has begun to care for. This ultimately leads to a slow blooming romance between the two women.
Although, we may never know if Bridget truly loved Lizzie, it can be argued that her affair with Lizzie may have been a welcome respite from the advances of Andrew. However, when Andrew discovers the two engaging in relations, he reacts with spite at the thought that Bridget isn’t just his anymore. This final act of spite ultimately seals his doom and brings about the murder that we have all come to know.
LIZZIE is not a horror movie. It is not a thriller. Anyone expecting clearly cut lines in either of those genres will be grossly disappointed. However, LIZZIE provides moments of horror and macabre throughout the course of its run through the carefully crafted delivery of themes concerning gender inequality, sexuality, and freedom as it pertains to the women that make up the Borden household. This is a film that also does not shy away from themes of sexual assault and rape so, for some individuals like myself, the film can take on a more horrific place in the film sphere than we had imagined.
The only significant complaint that I have as it pertains to the film is that at times it seemed that the message of how repressed the women were in this film was delivered in a heavy handed fashion. I could understand why screenwriter Bryce Kass placed such a heavy focus on the prison-like atmosphere of the Borden home. It made it very abundantly clear that Andrew Borden was not a blameless man and that, in order to save herself as well as the woman she loved, Lizzie’s home life might have groomed her into committing this terrible act. However, whether due to the writing or Sevigny’s performance or both, I oftentimes felt that it was striving to be a feminist, empowering film rather than just letting the film play it naturally. This is my own personal takeaway from the film, so many might feel differently on my interpretation of the tone of the film.
Ultimately, what lingers at the end of LIZZIE is a feeling of hope acquired at a disastrous cost that will leave its touch on the audience long after the movie is done. I know it still lingers in my mind much like the infamous legend itself. LIZZIE opens in theaters on September 14th.
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