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In "Lizzie", a centuries-old cold case becomes a feminist revenge narrative

16 Sep 2018

Photos Courtesy of IMDB

 

A mystery that has puzzled the American public for over a century, the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden takes on new life in Craig William Macneill’s new film, Lizzie.

 

The biographical thriller reimagines the gruesome double murder as a desperate act of revenge by a daughter tormented by a lifetime of abuse. Alongside its deeply dark interpretation of the case, Macneill and the film’s writer, Bryce Kass, construct a narrative that places female pain, desire, and, ultimately, strength, at its forefront.

 

The film follows Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) in the months leading up to the murders, as she quarrels with her abusive father (Jamey Sheridan) and complicit mother (Fiona Shaw) and develops an unlikely friendship with Bridget (Kristen Stewart), the Borden family housemaid who had recently immigrated from Ireland. As the summer of 1892 plays out, it becomes clear just how trapped and isolated Lizzie feels. Her relationship with Bridget evolves slowly and naturally, but it is out of complete and utter loneliness Lizzie reaches out, with Bridget as her only confidante. On screen, Sevigny shines in her role as her demeanor easily shifts from bitter disgust after an exchange with her father to gentle affection while teaching Bridget to read. Her chemistry with Stewart is authentically awkward, and her hostility with Sheridan feels effectively caustic.

 

The tension between Lizzie and her parents heightens when Lizzie finds out that her father has been sexually abusing Bridget, an act that the film insinuates is not out of character for him. Not only does Andrew physically abuse the women in his life, but he robs them of their independence, threatening to commit Lizzie to a mental institution if she fails to obey. While there is little, if any, evidence of this actually taking place, the on screen portrayal of Andrew Borden as emotionally and sexually abusive to the women in his life feels unsettling in a familiar way. In the era of #MeToo, this addition to the story complicates the morality of Lizzie’s actions. Without seeming heavy-handed, the abuse only serves to strengthen Lizzie’s bond with Bridget, placing Lizzie in the role of victim and protector, rather than cold-blooded killer.

 

 

Lizzie’s rage develops gradually. The film is rather slow-paced, focusing on Lizzie’s continued anguish over time, juxtaposed with the development of Lizzie’s friendship-turned-romance with Bridget. This romance plot is also not likely to be true. Though the real Lizzie never married and was rumored to be a lesbian later in her life, Bridget moved to Montana and married in the years after the murders. Like Andrew Borden’s abuse, this narrative ran the risk of feeling forced, but instead it feels like anything else. When juxtaposed with the abuse, Lizzie’s intimate rendezvous with Bridget, bathed in golden afternoon sunlight in the family barn, is a breath of fresh air after watching Andrew Borden assault Bridget under the cover of night. Rather than pandering to male voyeurism, as some films featuring queer women have, the scenes between Bridget and Lizzie capture the clumsy curiosity of sexual self-discovery, a direct nod to the real-life experiences of queer women.

 

The climax of the artfully developed romance of Lizzie and Bridget serves as the turning point for Lizzie, and the catalyst for the final act of the film. Tension is built expertly, and Lizzie’s resentment towards her parents manifests in small, but significant acts of violence — placing shards of a broken mirror outside of Bridget’s doorway for her father to encounter, for example. Eventually, these repeated acts become a singular idea, which Lizzie perceives as the only escape. Tormented throughout her entire life by her abusive father, Lizzie’s anger finally becomes a psychotic rage that she can no longer control. A tense, choppy violin melody over lingering shots of a particular ax plant the seed of murder, both in Lizzie and the audience. And yet, even as we watch her continuously beat her father with that ax as Bridget trembles behind her, we cannot help but feel her satisfaction.

 

This moral ambiguity is not just the hallmark of a compelling crime thriller, but it also carries an unmistakably feminist message. Lizzie is fundamentally about a woman seeking revenge for her pain, yet it refuses to conform to the “crazy bitch” trope that stories of female pain often perpetuate. Instead, Lizzie is both victim and killer, lover and executioner. The tragic antihero, not entirely evil but rather a victim of circumstance, is reimagined as an antiheroine.


In one scene, just after the murders, Lizzie calms Bridget, whispering to her softly as she wipes blood off Bridget’s face. These moments of tenderness, coupled with the brutality of Lizzie’s actions, present a character that is neither feminine weakness nor psychotic rage, but a character that is wholly human. While the world will likely never know the story behind the Borden murders, Lizzie is less about finding an answer to a century-old question and more about the transformation of pain into rage, and the emotional devastation that a life of trauma and isolation can incite.

Carolyn Ford is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature. They study Journalism, Linguistics, and Gender and Sexuality studies at NYU.

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