Sundance 2018 Review: Lizzie is a fascinating behind the scenes look into the events leading up to the Borden Family Murders.
Written by Bryce Kass, Lizzie is an in-depth behind the scenes look into the life of the Borden family six months before the murder of Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw). Chloë Sevigny stars as Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old woman whose every move is monitored and controlled by her father, Andrew. Because of this, Lizzie has lived most of her life as a hermit with little to no interaction with anyone outside of her home. Lizzie forms an unlikely relationship with the new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart) with whom Lizzie becomes fascinated. The two lonely women quickly become close and form a plan that will release Lizzie from the control of her father.
Whenever there is a Kristen Stewart film playing at a film festival, I go out of my way to see it. Kristen Stewart is one of my favorite actresses, and I admire her work because she takes on roles that are unique, complicated, and stand out. Lizzie was a project that I read a lot about before seeing it. Considering that there have been a least a dozens of films, tv shows, and plays about Lizzie Borden, I was very curious to see how screenwriter Bryce Kass was going to handle telling a story that has been told several times before. I am happy to report that this film is a refreshing and timely take on the Lizzie Borden story with two award-worthy performances and an ending that will leave you speechless.
There is a lot of speculation as to what happened the day of the Borden murders. The majority of Lizzie runtime is spent showing the type of environment that Lizzie grew up in and how her father treated everyone in her household. Sevigny portrays Lizzie as a smart and strong female whose father controls her every move. He is always talking down to her and trying to keep her quiet.
Director Craig William Macneill does a fantastic job of showing how poorly Lizzie was treated and how that treatment ultimately affected her mental state. It is a refreshing to see this because most other stories about Lizzie Borden only focus on how she went crazy without digging into her backstory and showing examples as to why she may have taken matters into her own hands. The real truth is that no one knows what happened at the Borden residence, but the way that Kass tells this story gives Lizzie a voice that hasn’t been given to Lizzie Borden before.
Lizzie in many ways feels like a stage play. There are only a few sets used and the film’s focus is centered primarily on Lizzie and Margaret with Andrew being portrayed as the film’s villain. While the film feels small, the director, DP, and costume designer create a film that is visually stunning. The entire Borden family mansion is so beautifully captured and I loved the use of candlelight in certain scenes. You can tell that this film was a labor of love for everyone involved which could be a reason why Sevigny not only is the lead but a producer on the film as well.
Regarding the story, the film’s first half focuses on the six months leading up to the murders. This is when we are introduced to Bridget and see the dynamic between all the characters. There is a lot of character and story setup within the first half of the film. We get to see scenes like the one where Andrew sneaks into Bridget’s room late at night as well as several confrontations that occur between him and Lizzie.
These scenes all showcase extremely powerful moments and ones that help depict how the Borden household isn’t as picture perfect as many would be lead to be believed. The second half of the film focuses on the murders and the aftermath. The way that this is handled feels incredibly well-rounded but at the same time makes the first half of film feel a tad too long since there is a lot of build-up to something that you know is going to occur.
While the script and direction are strong, the movie would not be a success if it weren’t for its two leading ladies. Despite taking place in 1892, the film feels relevant. Chloë Sevigny has never been better delivering a raw and haunting performance that will stick with you for days. There are several scenes in which you can see a quiet, intense rage in her eyes yet somehow she holds back from lashing out and showing that rage.
Sevigny does such spectacular work with the dialogue that feels as though it was written for her. She has several great one-liners that are perfectly delivered. I love the way that Sevigny presents Lizzie Borden to the audience as well. She is shown as someone who isn’t afraid to go against the status quo and stand up for her beliefs. This character is grounded in reality and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Sevigny turns Lizzie Borden into a very complex character and one that I believe a lot of women and men will certainly get behind.
Kristen Stewart’s performance as Bridget Sullivan is just another incredible performance to add to the actress’ constantly growing filmography. The role of Bridget is unlike anything that we have seen Stewart tackle before and is I believe the first time that she does an Irish accent. I swear that If you close your eyes when Bridget is on-screen talking, you would think that Saoirse Ronan was talking. Stewart embraces the material and dives into this world that Macneill and Kass have created. The intimate scenes with Stewart and Sevigny are ripe with passion and emotion. The chemistry between these two actresses was second to none.
While I would love to go into detail about the way that Macneill and Kass setup the murders, I won’t reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil these scenes for anyone. Let’s just say that the way that the murders occur are shocking and are presented in a way that is much different than you’re anticipating. Again, its hard to talk about without spoilers but the murder scenes are some of the best moments of the film and are astonishingly compelling to watch.
All in all, Lizzie is a refreshing new spin on the Lizzie Borden story that will speak to a modern audience. Macneill and Kass have created a film that is haunting, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Chloë Sevigny has never been better, and Kristen Stewart shows us once again why she truly is one of the best actresses working today. While I don’t know if horror fans will like the art house take on this story, I do believe that many will enjoy seeing a film that shows a whole new side of Lizzie Borden that the world has never seen before.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Lizzie is an 8 out of 10.