Lizzie Borden, and her ax, come to the big screen
“Lizzie” is, to my knowledge, the first theatrical film to be made about Lizzie Borden and the gruesome double murder that occurred in Fall River on Aug. 4, 1892. There was a 1975 telepic starring Elizabeth Montgomery and a 2014 Lifetime movie with Christina Ricci, which spun off into a limited series a year later. But a big-screen version? Surprisingly, no, given what attractions the part might hold out for an ambitious actress with a lot of nerve.
That ably describes Chloë Sevigny, who since her 1995 debut in Larry Clark’s “Kids” has pushed the envelope of discomfiting art and entertainment in any number of independent films. “Lizzie” has been Sevigny’s passion project, one she has shepherded for years and on which she takes a producer’s credit as well as starring in the title role.
The resulting movie is atmospheric and compelling, and it makes an empathetic case for Borden as an intelligent, passionate woman so stifled by her father and the suffocating society he represented that she lashed out (and then some). Directed by Craig William Macneill, “Lizzie” also keeps the brooding tension at the same unmodulated level for most of the running time; occasionally, the movie manages to be both creepy and dull.
The performances keep you invested, though, as do the speculations laid out by screenwriter Bryce Kass, who sticks to those facts that suit the tale he wants to tell. In this version, Lizzie is an odd duck trapped in a culture that insists on lockstep conformity — especially among the women — and her attraction to the Borden’s new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), has as much to do with longings for intimacy in any form as same-sex attraction.
Andrew Borden, as played by Jamey Sheridan, is a patriarch, a hypocrite, and worse; stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) extends starchy sympathy to both Lizzie and her more pliant older sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), but is turned back. Lizzie sees a prison being slowly built for her, and we see it, too: The father’s arrangement with a seedy brother-in-law (Denis O’Hare) to take over the family fortunes; hints dropped of institutionalization if Lizzie continues in her rebellious ways.
Sevigny’s lead performance is smart, finely tuned, and slightly frustrating. The actress knowingly straddles the line between what Lizzie’s society would call “hysteria” and a modern viewer sees as emotion throttled and thwarted until it finds outlet in violence. At the same time, the established Sevigny hallmarks — a deadpan voice, unblinking eyes, an uninflected posture — seem at times too modern for the tale. This Lizzie feels slightly detached, watching her life collapse from the outside, and we have to infer the moment when hate turns to homicide rather than seeing it happen.
There are precedents in movie history for such disassociated takes on feminist themes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sevigny has a few viewings of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 classic, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels,” under her belt. “Lizzie” tries to split the difference between a rigorous thesis project like that and a straight-up period film, and the mix doesn’t always take, yielding enervation on one side and candle-lit theatrics on the other.
That said, Stewart’s performance as the Irish maid, caught between kindness and cruelty, class and human connection, is a movingly intuitive mixture of then and now. And the murders, when they come, are as horrifying as they should be, director Macneill using the simplest of camera pans to reveal at last the naked savagery coursing beneath the decorous surfaces of Fall River.
That intimation of hidden double nature — the beast within the society spinster — is one of the chief reasons we’re drawn to the Lizzie Borden case and always will be. And it provides grist and urgency enough to attend to this “Lizzie” — or at least until another filmmaker decides to take a whack.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Craig William Macneill. Written by Bryce Kass. Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 105 minutes. R (violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality, some language).