The 19th-century ax murder of Andrew and Abby Borden at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, remains one of the great American unsolved mysteries. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie was the only person tried in the murder of her father and stepmother, but she was quickly acquitted of the crimes. We will likely never know for certain what went down that day in 1892, just as we’ll probably never know the true identities of lunatic killers like the Black Dahlia, the Zodiac Killer or the man who put the “bomp” in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped true-crime obsessives from trying to piece together the details of the grisly double murder into a plausible narrative. Most theories revolve around Lizzie’s supposed resentment towards her overbearing father, as well as a possible lesbian relationship with Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ maid. As directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and scripted by Bryce Kass, Lizzie serves as an If I Did It for the 1892 ax killings, threading various theories into a single story and injecting it with contemporary politics. Yet despite all the lurid details and topical relevance, Lizzie is so chilly and inert that it belongs in a whacks museum.
Chloë Sevigny stars as Lizzie, and she plays Borden as a stubborn and rebellious “old maid” who constantly butts heads with her wealthy tyrant father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), but who also suffers from violent seizures. Kristen Stewart plays Bridget, an Irish immigrant and new arrival in the Borden household who gets exploited by Andrew but falls in love with Lizzie. Sevigny is fine, but she’s not doing anything she hasn’t done better before, and both actresses feel too modern for their roles. Stewart is especially hampered by a corned ham Irish accent that makes her sound like one of Darby O’Gill’s little people.
Lizzie and Bridget’s love story should be central to the story of Lizzie, but that aspect of the film feels cold and remote, possibly because Macneill and Kass devote too much time and energy to teasing out the mystery through flashbacks and misdirects, as though it were all a big game of Clue. The film establishes that Andrew is a monstrous piece of shit from the moment he appears onscreen, yet still feels compelled to hammer that point home rather than flesh out the Lizzie-Bridget relationship. It makes you wonder if this relatively low-budget film couldn’t afford enough on-set time with Stewart.
All too often, Lizzie feels trapped between dueling directives, attempting to serve as a sensational murder-mystery, a stately costume drama and a neo-feminist history lesson, and doing none of those things particularly well. Lizzie is watchable enough but other than some surprising full-frontal nudity and an alternately insane and frustrating final third, there is nothing new or notable about the film. Thankfully, the real-life Lizzie Borden story is both vague enough and compelling enough to entice future cinematic interpretations, hopefully by filmmakers with a sharper sense of purpose.