Urban legends may often stem from fiction and cultural folklore, but it’s normally most intriguing when prevailing and/or competing dialogue(s) – admittedly, a long-winded way of saying ‘gossip’ – regarding a salacious real-life slice of the macabre render its subjects and events mere details of the same mythmaking; a process that extracts the humanity of all involved in favor of entertaining stories we tell our friends to creep each other out, and so all we’re left with is an aesthetic. We’re most vulnerable to these stories in our childhood, and it takes a while for a different spin on the familiar narrative to supplant the ones we’ve grown up with. Those different interpretations of events are what stick with us most as we reconsider the ideas we once held as true, meanwhile Lizzie Borden is perhaps one of the more notorious examples of this cultural phenomenon, and thus is among the most deserving of a collective revisit – if it should only be received by the indie crowds.
For the better part of a decade, that was Chloë Sevigny’s perhaps defining creative mission, seeing advancements and setbacks in abundance trying to accomplish her vision, but when the finished film directed by Craig William Macneill came out different from her and collaborative partner Bryce Kass’s original intentions, she was understandably candid about her disappointment. “I think Craig is very restrained,” Sevigny told the Huffington Post in a bracingly honest interview, “Craig has a lot of vision. I think he’s a great filmmaker. But I think maybe the movie could so easily go camp because she is also a camp figure. I think he was very frightened of pushing emotion in that direction, where it might turn into that. So, he was really pulling the reins on a lot, performance-wise.” She also mentioned Kass’s script, thus her intentions, included deeper complexities with the story’s various character relationships than what was finally presented, with Macneill’s interpretation leaving things “a little more vague.”
Such context doesn’t make Lizzie any easier to review, though it certainly provides some clarity on where things might have gone wrong and awkwardly highlights the moments that truly work in retrospect. For instance, and to get straight to the point, you will no doubt have correctly heard that the film’s dramatization of the infamous murders features absolutely stunning work from perhaps one of the only moments in which cast and crew – particularly Macneill and Sevigny – are truly operating in tandem. Isolated from the rest of the feature, this brutal, methodical sequence of events is every bit as satisfying narratively as it is thematically, with an overtly fascinating psychosexual undercurrent that heightens the tension as much as it truly opens the window into Lizzie’s (Sevigny) frame of mind as an, in many ways, imprisoned individual endlessly searching for tastes of freedom.
Macneill’s apparent longing for greater subtlety in atmosphere akin to the gradual bubbling and boiling of a great cauldron – longer takes, fewer edits and calculated staging – collides with the richer, more immediate and coherently explicit subtext and intense emotion Sevigny would have aimed for, organically coalescing into a team effort of seemingly disparate approaches. Such may sound like a backhanded compliment taken out of context, but this was always going to be the scene more on-the-fence viewers might have required to inform on which side of the good-bad binary – with each side having their own various textures, of course – they would fall. For potentially quite a few, their enjoyment of the film will hinge upon this scene, regardless of how it fits into the narrative Macneill constructs from Kass’s writing. At the very least, it’s something to marvel at in isolation the second its entirety is uploaded onto YouTube.
When considered in context with the narrative’s slow-burning progression, in spite of its – and Lizzie’s final discussion with love interest Bridget (Kristen Stewart) framed around it – culminating familiar ideas with a feminist spin, particularly of violence begetting violence and all-encompassing desire for a certain ideal alienating those we love, it nonetheless sticks out most not as a scene worthy of praise in its own right, but rather as one of the few rewards for remaining engaged with a final product that just barely merits any form of engagement. For whatever reason, whether it be any of those Sevigny alluded to in the aforementioned interview or one coming from another source, this scene, among a handful of others, is one of the only moments in which Lizzie pops the way it perhaps ought to have, digging through historical record to try and piece together a compelling account standing counter to the camp Lizzie Borden has been immortalized with through campfire stories. For what it’s worth, Sevigny might be onto something.
None of this, however, is to suggest Macneill was the wrong choice to direct – though perhaps he was, strictly for Sevigny and Kass’s material – or that he earns all of the blame failing to build a palpable, threatening aura with a more “restrained” approach. Plenty of sequences in between key plot points demonstrate not only the effectiveness of his more brooding touches as the film ratchets up the imposing, yet inherently fragile patriarchal villainy, but also an astute eye for blocking, camera movement and scene geography naturally working thematically in conjunction with feelings of psychological imprisonment. In a brief interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he admits that the crew had to shoot in Savannah, Georgia as opposed to the New England area because of cost constraints, and so filmed in a way that simply “suggest[s] the outside world rather than [shows] it.” As such, the famed Borden household often feels confining and rather maze-like, particularly when addressing Andrew Borden’s (Jamey Sheridan) manifestations of menace as well as Lizzie’s psychological frailty.
Sadly, if Sevigny and Kass’s intentions would have included greater depth regarding various characters relationships, then it’s fair to say this sort of complexity and how it influences subtext is where Macneill falls short – and that’s not including moments when the dialogue would rather be much less subtle about the creators’ ulterior motives rather than let circumstance do the talking. Potentially interesting dynamics, including Lizzie’s fraught relationship with her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) as well as Andrew and Abby’s marriage in light of the former’s devious exploits, often feel left by the wayside in favor of other underdeveloped pairings, particularly Lizzie and Bridget, whose romance plays a significant role in the emotional resonance of the film’s conclusion and its associated ideas. The latter, in spite of an overall solid performance from Sevigny and yet another masterclass in the understated from Stewart, especially suffers from failing to build any meaningful connection throughout to justify their final scene together’s intended gut-punch.
Seemingly as a result, though part of this issue possibly derives from the story’s focus and how it’s told, Lizzie feels like yet another safe, relatively tepid biopic unwittingly fanning the flames of those who reflexively deride the genre. That it could feel underwhelming in this way is especially deflating considering the Lizzie Borden murders are one of the few areas of history that allows any individual or group of writers to be entirely theoretical, indulging their storytelling creativity in that respect, rather than just use screenwriting as a means of depicting events as they occurred step by step without much thought for character and theme. Lizzie dives headfirst into theory, and yet somehow proceeds with that unmistakably, disappointingly common feeling undermining the work it wants to achieve with its characters, as well as successfully melding romance and psychodrama.
Speculation is naturally part of this particular story’s driving engine, but the resulting picture can’t be bothered using it to its advantage and fully investigating how the chosen interpretation of events shapes the relevant people and our understanding of them. Lizzie’s thesis statement seemingly plays more in the form of a question directed toward its audience than as a firm declaration; specifically, “If Lizzie Borden murdered her father and stepmother, could she still be a sympathetic figure?” Perhaps, though, this query was intended as being more thought-provoking than it is now, as it might have been more effectively controversial around the time of its original conception and had Sevigny’s project not encountered as many roadblocks. Of course, Sevigny’s representation of Lizzie can still earn our sympathy, especially without dulling the film’s implicit cautionary messages.
Like the murder scene, her arc, in spite of some vital chunks missing from it, is one of this film’s few saving graces, elevating it over mediocrity just enough that the above question arguably still feels like one worth asking. And perhaps regardless of its flaws, it’s enough of a departure from how the Lizzie Borden story is typically told to ask ourselves questions of how we confirm ideological biases through the conscious or unconscious repetition of stories and certain characteristics defining them. It’s easy to understand Sevigny’s ultimate disappointment; when a project is essentially of your own wholly individual creation, especially for as long as it took to get this film produced, it’s difficult making concessions and finding satisfaction in someone else’s vision supplementing your wishes and intentions. Thankfully, though, it’s fine enough for the rest of us not to come away from it let down so bitterly.