One of America’s most enduring horror legends is the story of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 in Fall River, Mass., was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe.
In “Lizzie,” director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass examine this notorious crime, picturing it as a case of female empowerment, revenge and sexual awakening.
Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie, a spinster at 32 who lives under the thumb of her father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), a hard and sometimes cruel man who punishes his daughter for the slightest diversion from his rules. One of those rules is to treat with respect his second wife, Abby (Fiona Shaw), whom Lizzie despises.
Andrew hires a new housemaid, an Irish lass named Bridget (Kristen Stewart), and the dynamic in the Borden household subtly changes. Lizzie knows that Bridget, like servant girls before her, will become a target for her father’s lecherous and abusive habits. Lizzie and Bridget grow closer, and the sexual tension between Sevigny and Stewart grows as the relationship does.
Macneill moves slowly, with deliberation and careful calibration, as he ratchets up the suspense toward the moment everyone who can rhyme “axe” and “whacks” is waiting for. The viewer may not notice this creeping dread building, until the moviegoer notices fingernails have embedded themselves in the armrest.
It helps that Sevigny and Stewart are two terrific actors, and their takes on these characters — two lonely, longing women held back by their sex and their class — is quietly compelling. They bring “Lizzie” to that expected, bloody moment, but it’s what they do after that will have the audience gasping in surprise.
Opened Sept. 14 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some language. Running time: 105 minutes.