Those of us of a certain age know the traditional nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden and her axe. It's a morbid little ditty about a daughter killing her parents by wielding a lethal tool. Actress Chloë
Sevigny has always been fascinated by Ms. Borden's supposed violent act and her little-known back story. She convinced her friend Bryce Kass to write the screenplay for LIZZIE, featuring her in the starring role.
In 1892, Lizzie Borden (Sevigny), an already old maid of 32, lived with her older unmarried sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), her stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw) and father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) in a large home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew is a wealthy man who made part of his fortune by offering loans to local farmers, then foreclosing on them --- in other words, he is not a well-liked man.
He is also a stern, overbearing father, and in the era in which Lizzie lives, unmarried women are not afforded many liberties. To get out of their father's home they have to either marry or die. And Lizzie isn't about to do either.
Earlier that year, a new maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), arrives at the Borden household. An extremely quiet but pretty addition, two people within the home take notice --- Lizzie and her father. It isn't long before Andrew is climbing the stairs to the attic late at night to "visit" Bridget.
Lizzie has designs on Bridget herself, which exacerbates her frustration and anger toward her father. Andrew espies them in a compromising situation, dismisses Bridget, causing Lizzie to plot her revenge.
The murders happen 90 minutes apart with Lizzie hacking her stepmother first. Bridget is supposed to kill Andrew, but can't do it, leaving the second slaying to Lizzie, as well. Lizzie stands trial, but to this day, these axe killings remain one of the more intriguing mysteries in New England.
It's almost as if Sevigny was born to play Lizzie Borden. A resident of Massachusetts herself, she has been obsessed with this crime since childhood. Though not much is actually known about the murders themselves, other than they were really 90 minutes apart, she and screenwriter Kass have developed their story and theories about Lizzie with diligence.
Ms. Borden had a ne'er-do-well uncle --- Andrew's brother, John --- played by the always excellent Denis O'Hare. He was staying with the family at the time, but had a solid alibi. According to Kass' s screenplay, he wanted Lizzie and Emma out of the way so he could claim Andrew's fortune. And O'Hare is just the actor to pull off the smarmy uncle routine.
It is Sevigny and Stewart, however, who rule this film. They definitely exude a chemistry that makes the whole wealthy daughter/poor housemaid-in-love version believable. Neither has to say much to get their meanings and intentions across.
LIZZIE is really good --- not great. I would have liked more/better development of the family history. Why did neither Lizzie nor Emma ever marry? Lizzie was thought to have had epilepsy, but even that is only touched upon. What really made Lizzie do this --- or did she? We will most likely never know the answers.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!
When I was a kid going to horror movies, one of Vincent Price's masterpieces was THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Edgar Allen Poe's classic tale. The audience counted the number of passes the huge pendulum blade was making as it neared ever closer to the belly of Francis Barnard, played by actor John Kerr.
On that note, I challenge anyone watching LIZZIE, a new film about the Lizzie Borden murders of 1892 in Fall River, Mass., to NOT count the number of whacks she uses to kill her stepmother and father. Hint: the total, according to the movie, is far less than what is attributed to Ms. Borden in the legendary rhyme.
LIZZIE features subdued but effective performances from Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart as the housemaid Bridget Sullivan. If nothing else, LIZZIE should serve as a warning to all men who abuse women. In this case, at least, Lizzie can absorb only so much emotional mayhem before succumbing to a violent response. Jamey Sheridan plays Lizzie's father Andrew with a decidedly mean fervor, much of which is directed at his daughter's pet squabs.
Andrew metes out plenty of derogatory commentary aimed at both Lizzie and Bridget. It's impossible to feel sorry for him --- SPOILER ALERT ---- when he gets "cleavered" in the face. His wife Abby (Fiona Shaw), however, although somewhat condescending to her stepdaughter, doesn't seem to really deserve her fate based on how her character is presented in the film.
LIZZIE is slow-paced, methodical in its detail, and generates a reasonable amount of suspense given that we already know what happens. I'm guessing that many people learn about this infamous murder case in grade school, but perhaps few know Lizzie's eventual fate at her trial.
Opinion: Wait for DVD