A killer isn’t born, a killer is made. Or so goes the phrase. If my hours spent to tuning in to “The Last Podcast on the Left” has taught me anything, it’s that the vast majority of serial killers come from deeply troubled homes. This is surely the case for Lizzie Borden. One of the most notorious female killers in history, the well-to-do Borden came from a respectable lineage, one of both prestige and prosperity. In Lizzie, the crumbs for a double homicide are laid inside a household that stewed dark impulses and nasty internal affairs.
Despite her family’s social standing, Lizzie is a social outcast, an “old maid” in the making, prone to spells of epilepsy and generally regarded as a pariah by society writ large. When an Irish housekeeper named Bridget takes a job in the Borden estate, Lizzie catches a case of the feelings and a simmering sexual chemistry bubbles to the surface.
In this chilly estate, populated by the cold and unrelenting Borden family, a twisted love triangle emerges. Both father and daughter vie for the attention of Bridget, one by means of domination, the other by gentle understanding, friendship, and humanizing the help. Discovering her sexuality, her father hisses, “You’re an abomination Lizzie,” to which she retorts, “I’m glad to finally be your equal father.” The script from newcomer Bryce Kass is barbed even though postured in the frilly high-class linguistics of 19th century America, playing off the discomfort of an impossible-to-maintain family life to create high-tension face-offs.
Some may think Lizzie slow-moving but I would prefer the term deliberately-paced, as director Craig William Macneill shows great care for these characters, giving them room to stretch and breathe and never rushing them into the horrors we know await. The eventual scenes of grisly murder are focused on the characters and their torment rather than the gore itself, though there are certainly some harrowing images, even by 2018 standards.
Macneill, who previously directed the drab and silly 2016 doll horror movie The Boy, shows some similar impulses but redirects them to great effect. Lizzie is atmospheric; understated and restrained, simmering with unease. Macneill displays a want to serve understanding and compassion to this difficult character, championing study over sensationalization. Though The Boy showed glimpses of a storyteller fiddling with low-broiling tension, Macneill seems to have gotten a firm handle on it here. This is no hatchet job.
It’s hard to ignore Noah Greenberg’s (Most Beautiful Island) stately cinematography, which is bathed in beams of natural light, or flooded by deceptive evening shadow. Even under overcast grey skies and in spite of its largely monochromatic color palette, Lizzie remains a handsome feature that captures the raw exposure of 1892 life. It is only when Bridget, our proxy into this dark tale, escapes the claws of the Borden household that blue skies erupt.
Jeff Russo’s eerie composition underscores the creepy minimalism, injecting a discomforting dread into the otherwise poised costume drama. But it’s the performances which really drive Lizzie and Macneill is privy to two strong lead turns.
Chloë Sevigny is strong as the eponymous killer, sinking into Lizzie’s misanthropy and shaping her rebellious rejection of family expectation. But as Bridget, Kristen Stewart threatens to overshadow lead Sevigny at every turn. Stewart’s is a broken character, lead to hope but accepting of the misfortune of her position. A forlorn stare reveals deep hazel pools of sorrow. Once again, Stewart flexes her considerable skill for understated performance, giving shade to a complex co-conspirator.
CONCLUSION: Performance-driven and mightily restrained, sometimes to a fault, ‘Lizzie’ is a thoughtful biography of a madwoman, or rather, a woman driven mad by her times. Fastened by strong performances from Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, ‘Lizzie’ is a somber, sumptuous, and at times vicious portrait of sustained torment and forbidden love.