The tale of Lizzie Borden has received many a telling since the events on August 4, 1892, when she found the bodies of her father and stepmother who had been killed by an ax. Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass find a new angle in which to view the events in their new film Lizzie. Rather than focus of the murders and the following trial, in which Borden was acquitted, they decide to turn their attention to why she may have done it.
Lizzie assumes that Borden was the murderer. Here, brought to vivid life by Chloë Sevigny, she is a woman who liberated herself from an oppressive parental control. She is a woman out of time who found a love that was forbidden. Gone is the sensationalization of the event that inspired nursery rhymes and sultry horror-tinged TV movies.
Borden's conflict with her father (Jamey Sheridan) begins early in the film when she decides to go to the theater unaccompanied. She isn't trying to make a statement with the action, rather she is just bored and doesn't want to wait for a man to take her to entertainment. He concedes but the tension is laid out clearly. She finds a soul-mate in Bridget (Kristen Stewart), her Irish maid who allows her to be herself. We soon see that Mr. Borden has his eye on Bridget as well.
Mr. Borden is painted in broader strokes than Lizzie Borden is here. He is a man who refuses to upgrade to electric lights because he doesn't believe in light. He runs his house like a militant patriarch. He ends up coming off a bit one-dimensional which works in service of the story but not in offering up the kind of nuanced look that Lizzie is given.
Sevigny actively pushed for the film to be made. Her fresh approach to the character is the Lizzie's strongest element. She plays her as a woman who knows the place of women at this time in history and yet refuses to conform. She is mesmerizing here. Stewart is also strong as Bridget. The romance that begins between them is completely believable. When we see the murders happen, we understand why it happens. The film stages the murder as a ritual cleansing.
The film's look is stunning, all natural light and deep shadows thanks to cinematographer Noah Greenberg. He is able to create the claustrophobic nature of the Borden household without resorting to flash techniques. He lets the shadows do the work. He also frames characters in a way to allow for plenty of non-verbal communication to occur. The result is a strong visual sense that fully supports the narrative.