The story of Lizzie Borden, tried and acquitted in 1893 of slaughtering her father and stepmother, has become an American folk legend, having lost its mundane details as it tended toward the mythic. Per the famous skipping-rope rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.” It’s been told and retold countless times in myriad media, adopted by its spinners for their own agendas. In Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, it becomes a queer, feminist rallying cry against a suffocating patriarchy that rapes its servants and disenfranchises its daughters.
Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) is a willful, unmarried thirtysomething in 19th-century Massachusetts who reads Shakespeare sonnets to her pet pigeons and attends the opera unchaperoned, where the anxious glory of La Wally’s “Ebben? Ne Andrò Lantana” activates her epilepsy and sends her writhing to the floor. In contrast, the household’s new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), is deferential, diffident, and barely literate. Plus, she’s a brunette, and Lizzie is a blonde—so they’re opposites that inevitably attract. Their sexual tension can be intense, as in one scene in which they almost kiss, their mouths dancing around each other’s faces like mating houseflies. (There’s little evidence that the real Lizzie was a lesbian, and even less that she had an affair with her family servant, but it’s one not-implausible theory, prominently posited in the 1980s by mystery writer Ed McBain, to explain this enduring case.)
Macneill and Kass, working closely with Sevigny, have fashioned this story as domestic horror, à la The Witch and Hereditary—such as when Mr. Borden (Jamey Sheridan) slips into Bridget’s room late at night and asks her to be a “good girl.” Told with righteous sensitivity, Lizzie depicts a household in duress, where anonymous threatening letters arrive and misbehavior is punished by decapitating pet birds and serving them for supper. The dimly lighted interiors cast a rustic menace on the house’s abundant wood, stone, and iron, as do the faint reflections by candlelight and lantern glow. Every floorboard and bench seat groans under the slightest weight.
Sevigny brings her usual sense of irony to Lizzie’s brasher moments, and hers is a force of subdued defiance when Mr. Borden becomes more oppressive, threatening institutionalization to deal with Lizzie’s epilepsy. Denis O’Hare, as Uncle John, who holds similar power to commit Lizzie, is exceptionally unctuous, filthy, and feral, like a distempered rodent. But it’s an extraordinary Stewart who steals the film, quiet with a raging inside that peeks out through her smoky, heavy-lidded eyes. Her character grows into the angry, confident fear of a teenage gangster, tearily insolent, after Stewart finally erupts in a scene in which Bridget learns of her mother’s death; she practically dives into Sevigny for comfort. Soon after, Mr. Broden touches Bridget’s face tenderly, in ostensible consolation, and Macneill cuts to an axe in its pail.
The film moves evenly toward a conclusion that feels as inevitable as it does inescapable, while providing a plausible framework for the still-mysterious true crime—even if the script contains a few too many applaudably feminist lines of dialogue. The murders—deliberate, erotic, and unhinged—are withheld until the end, In Cold Blood-style, after we’ve seen bits of testimonies at trial. It’s an appropriately harrowing cap to this bleak, haunted, sad, and gruesome story of forbidden romance and its blood-soaked consequences.