A lesbian spin on the legendary Lizzie Borden murder case is nothing new — Ed McBain posited the notion in a 1984 novel — but the stylish and haunting “Lizzie” paints a provocative portrait of a woman driven by passions and left with few options in a society that gave her little agency.
In “Lizzie,” we come to know Borden’s inner turmoil, not only by her periodic “spells” but also in the way that the camera captures a bewitching Chloë Sevigny. She’s often off-center in the frame, or reflected in mirrors, or out of focus in the foreground as she imagines what’s happening far behind her.
Screenwriter Bryce Kass (“Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs”) and director Craig William Macneill (2015’s “The Boy”), like everyone else who has tackled this story, are left to their own conjectures and theories as to the how and the why behind the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother, but they’ve turned the puzzle pieces into a haunting, horrifying romance.
Six months before Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) faced that fatal ax — and despite the famous rhyme, each received far fewer than 40 blows — housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) reports for duty. While most of the household refers to her as “Maggie” (the generic name given to all Irish servants, much as all Pullman porters once answered to “George”), Lizzie (Sevigny) immediately calls her by her given name.
Right away, there’s an electricity between them; as Lizzie reaches out to adjust one of Bridget’s hairpins, it’s clear that there’s already a connection. The unmarried Lizzie tests her father’s patience with her willfulness, daring to go to the theater unescorted and constantly questioning his authority. (Being “sent away” for her infractions is a constant threat being dangled over her.) Andrew’s a monster — he visits Bridget’s room in the middle of the night to rape her on multiple occasions — and he’s upset over a series of anonymous threatening notes that have come to the house.
When those notes compel Andrew to name his late wife’s ne’er-do-well brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare) as the executor of his will, putting him in charge of the financial well-being of Lizzie and her also-unmarried older sister Emma (Kim Dickens), Lizzie is furious. When she catches him in Bridget’s room, she breaks a mirror and spreads the glass on the floor in barefoot Andrew’s path. And on a hot day in August, Andrew and Abby will die in a murder that we see Lizzie commit, even though the courts never found her guilty.
Cinematographer Noah Greenberg (“Most Beautiful Island”) paints a captivating picture, from the aforementioned off-kilter framing of Lizzie to a sudden burst of hand-held camera when she tears through the house looking for jewelry she can pawn as a way to escape from her father. Greenberg also works with an astonishingly broad array of options within natural light. (Andrew Borden was infamous for being a penny-pincher when it came to illuminating his own house.)
When Lizzie hears Andrew in Bridget’s room, she clutches a single candle, and the light illuminates her Botticelli curls with Caravaggio-like menace. By the time she’s wielding the hatchet, Lizzie has become both avenging angel and mad warrior, both slasher and final girl, both Salome and the executioner of John the Baptist.
Between the camerawork and the subtle performances, “Lizzie” could very easily have been a silent film while still telling its story as effectively. But Kass’ dialogue is terrific, from Lizzie and Bridget’s tentative (then passionate) courtship to the sick burn Lizzie delivers to Andrew when he calls her “an abomination” for her affair with the maid.
Sevigny and Stewart are intensely affecting as women of different stations who are both nonetheless choked by the demands of the patriarchy; they also create a palpable erotic tension, particularly early on when Bridget is buttoning up Lizzie’s blouse for dinner. Their performances are powerfully supported by the extraordinary ensemble, which also includes Jeff Perry (“Scandal”) as the family attorney.
There has been a long and rich cinematic history of women who kill, in films ranging from “Thelma and Louise” to “La Cérémonie” to “Sister, My Sister” to “Butterfly Kiss” to “Monster.” Sometimes the two are lovers, sometimes one or both of them is a domestic, but in almost all cases, they are driven to murder to stay ahead of a world that would just as soon snuff them out first. With “Lizzie,” Lizzie Borden and Bridget Sullivan join their fierce, blood-stained ranks.