There’s an undeniable sense of atmosphere that permeates Lizzie—Chloe Sevigny’s long gestating passion project from director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass—that is, almost exactly what the movie wants to be.
Taut, moody, deliberate, Lizzie unfolds its slow burn reexamination of the Lizzie Borden murders—which have long ingrained themselves into the collective psyche of America, becoming a nursery rhyme in the process—with a laudable, and there are moments when you can see the intense psychological thriller that the makers and stars had in mind from the outset.
When that happens, Lizzie borders on the divine. At the very least, it’s a fascinating deconstruction of the crime itself, one that proposes that Lizzie’s (Sevigny) breaking point occurred when her affair with the Borden’s new housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart) became known by the family, finding Lizzie shun and outcast by her distant father (James Sheridan) and bewildered stepmother (Fiona Shaw).
That’s certainly a theory that has moved in some historical circles over the years, and it’s one that has gained steam in recent history. There’s certainly evidence to suggest it, and given the puritanical leanings of the Borden family, it makes a kind of sense. Here, its intertwined with Mr. Borden’s supposed machinations of writing his children out of the will, as well as his rape and abuse of his servants.
This all suggests something complex and fascinating, but the end result is more boring than all that. A lot more boring. No particular aspect of the crime is explored in enough detail to justify the “psychological” part of “psychological thriller” and nor do the thrill become anything particularly thrilling. It is, at its best, a case study in potential that can never find the footing to gel together cohesively.
No particular part of this is the problem. Sevigny and Stewart are both fascinating to watch; Sevigny with her burning rage that finally ascends to a breaking point and Stewart with her quiet desperation as the situation in the Borden house becomes more and more untenable. Each actress gives one of their best performances, and what they do with the material is devastating in its brilliance.
The problems, I guess, would be the material itself. In attempting a slow burn, they’ve accidentally gone too far into the slow and became, well, just boring. The effort itself may be admirable, and there’s undeniably a fascinating style just waiting to be let out. Stylistically and thematically, it’s not unlike last year’s Lady Macbeth, though without the through line of emotional engagement that made that movie work so well.
Though at times interesting, and with a cast that is always fascinating to see, Lizzie suffers from the problem of being almost immediately forgettable. Even touching on the interesting angles that it does, there’s little here to justify itself or make it worth the time and effort to see. Fans of pure acting might enjoy seeing what its leads do with their performances, everyone else should consider axing this from their to do list.
Lizzie is now playing in select theaters.