Craig William Macneill’s terse, at times tense Lizzie re-airs that most familiar of dirty laundry, the case of the 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts, hatchet murders that will forever be attributed to Lizzie Borden, despite her acquittal in 1893. There’s a warning in her story to criminals who seem to get away with it in their own time: History ain’t a jury of your peers. Still, for a while, after a somewhat compelling hour suggesting all the reasons that Borden might be willing to kill, Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass tantalize with the possibility of their subject’s innocence.
When the killing comes, the film skips right over it. We glimpse a shadowy figure grab the hatchet from a cellar, and soon after hear Borden (Chloë Sevigny) scream at the discovery of her father’s corpse. Then Lizzie cuts to the aftermath: to Borden’s sister Emma, insisting that Lizzie is innocent; to Lizzie herself, torching her father’s will on a stove; to the constables hauling Lizzie into a cell to await trial; again to the notorious woman herself, betraying not a flicker of guilt or concern as she faces her fate or stares down her father’s cruel wastrel of a brother (Denis O’Hare), who just a few scenes earlier had assaulted Lizzie over a disagreement.
We’re cued to wonder: Is she being railroaded? Might she not recall having done it? Earlier in the film, Lizzie has collapsed in public, suffering fits. Might she have murdered in a fugue state? But the filmmakers keep up the pretense of possibility for only a couple of scenes, just until we’ve seen the Bordens’ servant Bridget (Kristen Stewart) testify, briefly, shakily, at Borden’s trial. Bridget insists, with a trembling lack of conviction, that the entire morning of the slaughter she watched Lizzie rest beneath a pear tree.
Then Lizzie vaults back in time to present its theory of the case, becoming a blunt true-crime procedural, tracking Borden and Bridget minute by minute through the slaughter, hacking into its simple ideas about women and the past with all the nuance of Sevigny’s Borden swinging her ax into her father's and stepmother’s skulls. The film concerns the vagaries of evidence rather than states of mind, committing to particulars rather than to what might have been transpiring in the head and heart of the Gilded Age’s most infamous murderer. Why was there no blood on the murderer’s clothes? Why had the head of one hatchet in that cellar recently been sawn from its handle? While dutifully feminist in its outlook, the film strips Lizzie while never laying her bare.
The performers deserve better. In early scenes, Sevigny is offhandedly tart as the headstrong Lizzie, doling out insults to well-heeled acquaintances with an air of exquisite weariness. In the servant role, Stewart plays meek at first, but soon Bridget and Lizzie find common cause — and, eventually, a breathy, nuzzling romance — in the family’s pigeon roost. The filmmakers at all times emphasize the limited options women enjoyed in 1890s America, and the moments of Bridget and Lizzie finding their way toward intimacy boast a reckless power, as if they might wreck everything these two know. Of course, as director of photography Noah Greenberg’s tightly claustrophobic framing suggests, their world could stand to be shattered. In practice, though, the possibility of even a brief, stolen happiness makes Lizzie and Bridget’s everyday circumstances all the more intolerable. Too bad, then, that this percolating tension — and the sharply etched performances — promise more than Lizzie ultimately delivers.