It’s one of the great sensational mysteries of American history: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / Gave her mother forty whacks, etc.” Though it was actually Lizzie’s step-mother that was murdered along with her father, Andrew, and there were not so many whacks, and no one was, in fact, ever convicted of the crime. There are facts, there are suspicions, and there are legends. Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, featuring Chloë Sevigny in the title role, offers a bit of all three, arranging fact and speculation with the intent to present a particular version of the character, a proto-feminist living in a deeply misogynistic, homophobic, and racist society that is made all the more terrifying for her because she will not indulge its prejudices. How much has not changed between the historic Fall River, Massachusetts, portrayed in the film and present-day America is a good deal of the point here. A number of factors contribute to Lizzie’s murderous break, including deep tensions with her parents over their attempts to control her and their treatment of their immigrant maid, Bridget, who they rename Maggie, a racist label for all poor Irish women that Lizzie refuses to use. Then there’s Uncle John, a grabby, oily, failed horse trader, who has designs on Lizzie and her sister Emma’s inheritance.
Lizzie is a great vehicle for Sevigny, requiring her full range, from acerbic self-possession to a taut reserve to passionate fearlessness. Her performance, and that of Kristen Stewart’s equally weighty Bridget, is strong throughout. The two play the developing intimacies between their characters coyly and convincingly, as two women with no understanding and no history of romantic love, discovering what might be possible between people knowing nothing more than a little of the pleasures of friendship and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Chloë Sevigny’s tense scenes with Uncle John (an excellently menacing Dennis O’Hare), the only man who seems to have the grit and guile to intimidate this Lizzie, are also some of the best in the film.
Still, Lizzie doesn’t quite feel like a complete project, despite the quality of its cast and performances. The editing of the timeline gets a bit messy once the case goes to trial, and the character of Lizzie’s sister Emma, though she seems crucial at particular moments, and mostly sympathetic to Lizzie, remains a bit of an afterthought in the script, a character whose emotional involvement in the murder of her father by her sister should be more developed, but feels hollow, a device to add tension when Chloë Sevigny herself can’t be on screen, which is rare.
One wonders if too much is in play for the film. If it had leaned a little more toward history or legend—which is the stronger inclination here—some of the infelicities in scripting might have been alleviated. But to lean so far toward legend, one also wonders what of the origin story might have remained important enough for the film to be even nominally about the historical Lizzie Borden. Do we learn anything “true” about the case? Or does truth even matter? Regardless, what’s significant is that this young woman took forty or so whacks for justice and love in an environment that wouldn’t have given her either. And maybe that’s enough.