Review: Sevigny, Stewart pass the ax in 'Lizzie'

A famous 1892 murder case is given a reexamination in this slow burn thriller

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny in "Lizzie."

Lizzie Borden was a cold-blooded killer, and the handsomely crafted, at times laborious "Lizzie" takes a step back and examines her story in a semi-modern context. 

Borden, played here by Chloe Sevigny, was accused (and later acquitted) of ax-murdering her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. Her story was immortalized in nursery rhyme ("Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks" -- a catchy tune, really), and "Lizzie" takes a time-shifting approach to the case before getting down to its nitty-gritty details. 

Lizzie is 32 and is kept cooped up in her stately home; her strict father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), forbids her from going into town to go to the theater. Her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) isn't much help, nor is her uncle John (a smarmy Denis O'Hare), who doesn't bother hiding his plans to keep her out of her father's will.

Lizzie connects with Bridget (Kristen Stewart), the house maid, although their love is strictly taboo given the time. (Bridget explains the sexual politics of their day with the understanding of someone from the future, a stretch for screenwriter Bryce Kass.) Meanwhile Andrew regularly takes advantage of Bridget, which she must accept because of their respective social standings, which is all the more icky in the era of #MeToo. 

"Lizzie" opens with the immediate aftermath of the crime, dials back six months earlier, revisits the crime's wake and jumps to the trial before depicting the crime itself, which is jarring given director Craig William Macneill's slow build and the tension he finally uncorks.

It's an effective approach, but what he's saying about Lizzie isn't as clear. Were her crimes justified? Again, that's a stretch. But it's clear there's more to her story than a nursery rhyme.




Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some language

Running time: 106 minutes