2018, R, 105 min. Directed by Craig William Macneill. Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O'Hare.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 21, 2018
There are two ways to handle historical true crime: Either stick as close to the facts as possible, or go into full flights of fancy. Basically, you can have a 10 Rillington Place or In Cold Blood, or you can go completely crazy and have a time-traveling Jack the Ripper in Time After Time. Falling in between those two posts can just lead to a nasty fall, like the hideously ill-considered From Hell, which was neither the original comic's shamanistic retelling of the history of London, nor an honest re-enactment. Such versions feel oddly disrespectful, like the actual lives of the victims are something to be played with for points. That, rather sadly, is where Lizzie stumbles: A murky and didactic retelling of the infamous and still unsolved 1892 Borden family slayings in Fall River, Mass., that has little to do with the actual events, and far more to do with contemporary politics.
In this interpretation, there's no question whether Lizzie (Sevigny) did the dirty deed, as it's shown in the bloody denouement. Instead, it's about motivation: The deaths are her attempt to liberate herself from the clutches of her father (Sheridan), while she awakens into a relationship with housemaid Bridget "Maggie" Sullivan (Stewart).
Sheridan as the doomed Andrew Borden stands in for the entire patriarchy, a malevolent, abusive figure who has oppressed his daughters and everyone else in town, a cartoonish mixture of Harvey Weinstein and Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life (the only sin he doesn't commit is gaslighting, and fortunately O'Hare as family friend and business partner John Morse is there to pick up that slack). Meanwhile, Sevingy's Lizzie has every burden of a 19th century middle-class woman – a lack of financial independence, sexual repression, having every emotional outburst be written off as hysteria. Yet it's oddly difficult to be sympathetic with her because every character trait is spelled out in capital letters, even if much of her performance depends on Lizzie truculently pursing her lips, like a minor Chekhov character. This rewriting may work better if Lizzie wasn't so remorselessly dreary and oddly unhistorical in little details. There are also moments that feel dismissive of facts, such as Andrew stripping Bridget of her real name, like he's relabeling her (in her testimony at the trial, Sullivan said that Maggie was Lizzie and her sister Emma's nickname for her). Dialogue is reduced to consistent mumbled whispering, in an attempt to build mood and tension, but that's as ineffectual as the sepia-tinged photography is at evoking the period.