It can be argued that the deaths of Sarah and Andrew Borden, presumably at the hands of their axe-wielding daughter, served as the beginning of America's fascination with sensationalized murder and mystery. The tale of Lizzie Borden has been told in multiple films, documentaries, dramatizations, books, a nursery rhyme and even two separate stage musicals. The newest installment, Craig William Macneill's Lizzie is a messy piece of speculative history presenting Lizzie as an unsung feminist icon. It simultaneously turns one of the most riveting pieces of American true crime into the dull equivalence of watching blood dry.
For what it's worth, the revisionist history and supposed fictional elements of Lizzie have neither been proved nor disproved by historians. This makes the idea that Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) was involved in both a financial crisis with her uptight father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), as well as a secret lesbian affair with her family's housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) in the weeks leading up to the murder of her parents all the more fascinating. Lizzie Borden's sexuality has been up for speculation for over a century, and one would think injecting forbidden sexual tension into what is already a fascinating story of murder would up the stakes and make for a more entertaining retelling.
Unfortunately, the sexual tension (delivered in fantastic performances by Sevigny and Stewart) is legitimately the only captivating element of the entire film.
To be fair, the film looks absolutely stunning. Noah Greenberg serves as director of photography and each frame looks like a portrait worthy of hanging above a mantelpiece. For as slowly as the film moves, it certainly delivers gorgeous cinematography that at least makes the sludgy story worth looking at.
It's apparent what Lizzie was trying to say. The famous crimes of Lizzie Borden taking an axe to her parents was a justified response to patriarchal oppression in a world that wanted to deny her the happiness to which she was entitled. Her massacre was meant to be a battle cry for women scorned everywhere who weren't going to take it anymore. But the film has no more impact than a whisper. The feminist core of Lizzie has the backbone of a jellyfish and every would-be moment of woman empowerment is half-cocked at best.
Sevigny and Stewart do their best to add depth and fascination to the relationship between Borden and her housemaid, but they're stuck in a slow-as-molasses film that consistently holds them back from truly shining.
Lizzie opens on Sept. 21.