★★★ / ★★★★
Craig William Macneill’s approach of telling the famous 1892 double murder is interesting because it strives to avoid sensationalization of the material. Violence, whether it be physical or psychological, is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way; it creates a fascinating portrait particularly because it is told from the perspective of the title character, played by Chloë Sevigny, an unmarried woman in her thirties who is treated like garbage by her domineering father (Jamey Sheridan). And because the father is quite open to treating his daughter like she is worthless, others who are witness to his cruelty deem it is acceptable to treat Lizzie this way, too. We feel her growing rage, her every day humiliation. At one point, the film nudges us to consider whether the murders are justified.
Although I knew about the murder case and therefore what is in store fort Lizzie, the picture remains curious throughout. One of the reasons is its presentation. For the majority of the time, we are placed inside the Borden house; Lizzie feels trapped and so do we. (It could have been less heavy-handed with its metaphor of caged pigeons.) When the outdoors is shown from a window, for example, even having a peek at a verdant garden from a few steps away, we could taste the freedom. Notice, too, when a scene takes place outside, dialogue is minimal—like it is a crime to speak, laugh, and enjoy the outdoors. Being indoors is worse. There is horror in the way family members rarely speak to one another. And when they do, it often leads to some sort of confrontation. At night, unspeakable crimes occur.
Lizzie’s life is made a bit better when a new housemaid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), becomes a friend and soon a lover. Despite the fact that Stewart is solid in the role, I found her look and style of acting to be too modern. She is a walking anachronism in a straight-faced period drama—at times distracting but at the same time fascinating. When she is on screen, I found myself looking at her closely, observing minute details like how she breathes, even though I was entirely aware that her presence is a distraction.
I wondered if casting a performer who clearly does not fit the appearance of someone who lived in late 1880s was a strategy. Perhaps by having Stewart stick out like a sore thumb, it helps the viewer to recognize what Lizzie sees in Bridget. Because the plot is a murder story in its very core, a typical romantic parabola is inappropriate. I don’t think we are meant to process what they share as a love story. It opens the door to the possibility that Bridget, especially through the scope of a lesbian affair, is a mere excitement, that Lizzie wanting to have her is achieving freedom in a way.
The screenplay is written by Bryce Kass and the film is not for impatient viewers. I admired its willingness to take the time and putting in the effort to soak the audience in Lizzie’s miserable life. The criminally underrated Sevigny is supremely watchable because there is not one moment when she dials down Lizzie’s fierce intelligence. That is the correct decision because all of the men in the titular character’s life remind her, one way or another, that she is inferior simply because of her sex. Close-ups, especially unflattering ones, reveal the subject’s quiet desperation.