Cruel Intentions

The infamous case of Lizzie Borden has enticed true-crime enthusiasts and cultural commentators ever since it took place in New England in 1892. Borden was tried and famously acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother, who were killed with multiple strikes of an axe in their home in Massachusetts.   

This latest cinematic re-telling comes from writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Macneill (The Boy), blending arthouse aesthetics with all the genre trimmings. The cast itself is an art cinema lovers’ dream, with Chloë Sevigny starring as Lizzie. While she once was in the shadow of Christian Bale in American Psycho, here she gets her very own axe-murdering moment – a violent and utterly arresting scene that deserves a place on her showreel, as she brandishes her weapon naked and covered in blood. 

Such a description makes Lizzie sound like an exploitation B movie, and Macneill does have his moments playing in such fertile territory. But there’s more to Lizzie, with its tale of familial abuse and revenge upon the patriarchy. Cast alongside Sevigny, Kristen Stewart is Bridget, the housemaid we first see cleaning the windows when there is a scream from the bedroom and blood everywhere. Kass’ screenplay then takes us back six months to when she first arrives.  

Running this household with an iron fist is Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), living with his new spouse (Fiona Shaw), and overseeing every move of daughters Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Is there physical abuse at play? The film doesn’t make it explicit, but it would be no surprise in this dysfunctional household. Less hidden are the blossoming feelings between Lizzie and Bridget, who is taught to read by her mistress. 

The final act returns us to those earlier-heard screams and the actions that cause them. Punctuating the hermetically-sealed atmosphere with unbelievable moments of violence, Macneil works in tandem with his cinematographer, Noah Greenberg, and production designer, Elizabeth E. Jones, to create an eerie feel to proceedings. Trading in ambiguities, which some may find frustrating, it’s nevertheless an unusual and refreshing study of a lurid crime so relentlessly picked over. 

Lizzie opens on 14 December. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Stills from Lizzie.