Director Craig William Macneill follows up debut feature The Boy with this true story of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny), implicated in the brutal murders of tyrannical father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.
Locally at least, Borden’s grisly story swiftly became the stuff of legend, and Macneill’s retelling doesn’t stint on its gruesome aspects. Sevigny’s Lizzie is an intense, mercurial creature, blessed with a droll wit and given to fits, which the family call “spells”. Repressed by convention and societal expectations, the focus of her inner rage and frustration is her father, the pair engaged in a strange and toxic dance of push and pull. Into the mix comes maid ‘Maggie’ (Kristen Stewart) — whose actual name is Bridget, changed by her employer, symbolic of his ownership of the girl; a power that quickly extends to abuse and rape. There’s an instant attraction, if not quite bond, between Lizzie and Bridget, the girls finding solace in each other, a comfort that soon develops into something sexual. And dangerous.
Macneill effectively evokes the poisonous nature of this pressure-cooker household, its malignant atmosphere enhanced by Jeff Russo’s foreboding score. The effect is unsettling, and the murders, when they come, frenzied, graphic and truly shocking. There are certainly timely themes here, not least that of female oppression — both Lizzie and her lover are violated by the family patriarch in different ways. Yet it is here that the message becomes muddled. Lizzie, although on the one hand justified in her anger, is also portrayed as disproportionately vicious, possibly even psychopathic. Too often the tone slides into lurid melodrama, while clunky visual metaphors (birds, both trapped and free, recur, as does the washing of windows) jar. Still, the central performances from Sevigny and Stewart are compelling, with Shaw, Sheridan and O’Hare in strong support, adding up to an arresting if far from comfortable piece.