Though the latest film based on the parent murderer and Fall River, Massachusetts native Lizzie Borden attempts to frame itself as a thriller, it’s a much more complicated and nuanced tale of death than the sensationalists will have you believe.
Nearly everyone knows the story of Lizzie Borden, if not the song that goes along with the murders as well. Lizzie banks on this familiarity by starting with the discovery of the bodies. Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) calls out to housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) as she finds what’s left of her father. Soon after, her stepmother’s body is discovered in another room. After we get the inevitable acknowledgement of the crimes out of the way, Lizzie leads us back to the beginning of their end.
Bridget’s arrival to the Borden house is her introduction to the tense family relations within. Father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) rules with an iron fist, and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) follows his lead. Bridget is not treated kindly, but she is just the hired help, after all. When Lizzie shows the maid some common courtesy, it feels like a warm welcome to Bridget.
Throughout the rest of the film, in the weeks and months leading to Andrew and Abby’s deaths, we see how the reserved New England manners are hiding nearly every type of abuse possible. Sexual, physical, psychological, and economical are in the mix from Andrew, and kept quiet by the family. As Lizzie and sister Emma (Kim Dickens) get older, Andrew shows signs of increasing his stranglehold on their lives, and sees to it that everyone is as miserable as possible.
This angle to the Borden legend is what stops Lizzie from being just another exploitative slasher where the killer is the real victim. Though that is, in fact, what’s happening here, Lizzie takes its time for you to get to know the characters and see the effect that Andrew has on all of them. We know Lizzie and can see her pain when dealing with her father and stepmother. And we can see her affection for Bridget and her desire to keep her safe, even though that’s a foolish errand.
Lizzie also stops short of showing Lizzie as either a crazed or reactionary character. She may take a different approach to solving her problems, but ultimately an unmarried woman back in the 1880s had far fewer options than women today. A layer of empathy is applied here. However, that deeper understanding of Lizzie is offered without apology for what she does.
Lizzie feels like a peek behind the lace curtains of an abusive and ultimately murderous household. It offers a sympathetic view towards an axe-wielding killer, and does so with sensitivity and respect.