An unsolved mystery, especially one as peculiar as the case of the Lizzie Borden murders, should be like gold dust for filmmakers looking to tap into a ready-made audience. The chance to portray a real story that has peaked our communal curiosity for over a hundred years provides an opportunity to update those old tales for a new, fresher audience, and dare to make judgements through the interpretive lens of a camera. With a wealth of grisly information on the aftermath (Mr. Borden was struck 18 times with an axe; his wife 17), here is the perfect circumstance for an artist to create something devastatingly haunting from a story so deeply embedded in American popular culture. Lizzie promises all of this but never delivers, presenting us instead with a bare-bones carcass of a biopic that is stripped of all individuality, charm, or character.
For those uninitiated, the (entirely true) tale of Lizzie Borden (played here by Chloe Sevigny) goes as follows: On August 4, 1892, Borden, a wealthy American woman, was put on trial and acquitted for the axe-murders of both her father and her stepmother. Though theories implicate their maid, Bridget (played here by Kristen Stewart) with whom Borden had an unusually close relationship, this has never been proven — nor has it ever been proved that Lizzie did or did not commit the murders.
The film begins “at the end” with the discovery of the two bodies — a cliche choice that fits right into the cookie-cutter ideal for any dull biopic. Stripping all suspense from this pivotal moment in the murder story, director Craig William Macneill throws us into an extended flashback, beginning from the point that Bridget was introduced into the home. Stewart is, as always, brilliant with what little she is given to work with. As a maid eager-to-please, she is a stark contrast to Lizzie’s unruly socialite. Excepting a collection of sweet moments involving a series of letters, their relationship moves from platonic to sexual to romantic at a plodding pace reminiscent of a painting-by-numbers kit. In one scene, Lizzie suddenly asks Bridget if she’s had much schooling. After Bridget replies in the negative, we are fast-forwarded to Lizzie teaching Bridget to read, with no time or emotional energy to settle into the changing nature of their relationship. Whilst these gentle tropes are pleasant to watch, they hold little gravitas and fail to create anything more than a momentary spark between the two women.
Meanwhile, the plot maneuvers between various storylines with zero emotional cohesion. Throughout the contestation of her father’s will to the sudden appearance of a much-hated Uncle to her irreparably damaged relationship with her family, Lizzie’s character is never allowed to develop beyond “insolent child with daddy issues”, whilst Bridget is little more than her doting lap-dog. Lizzie’s father and stepmother have no redeeming features or, seemingly, any humanity at all. The rage we are intended to feel towards the murdered Bordens never really appears as so much characterisation feels staged and artificial — how can we truly loathe these people when they are essentially pantomime villains? It quickly becomes impossible to make any kind of personal judgement on the Borden case, in an interpretation with all the individuality of a Wikipedia article.
Perhaps this review is too harsh; as a biopic, after all, Lizzie does its job in an albeit underwhelming fashion. We accompany her through her relationship with Bridget, to the murders, then her trial, imprisonment, and acquittal. As a thriller, however, the film fails on virtually all fronts. A few stellar scenes near the end come far too late to make up for an hour and a half of listless dialogue and uninspired camerawork. The story of Lizzie Borden is anything but simple, with all its webs of deceit, motivation, and conspiracy, but Macneill fails to embed any of this intrigue within Lizzie, leaving only disappointment and missed opportunities.