Lizzie, the sophomore feature from director Craig William Macneill (The Boy), contains all the right pieces to form a harrowing character study — a pair of compelling lead performances, intriguing true-crime source material and imposing cinematography. It’s a laudably pragmatic take on a sensational 1892 axe murder with sufficient craft to flaunt. Alas, seemingly no amount of competence can inject enough life into Lizzie to justify its existence. As an A&E docudrama, this would be surprisingly watchable. As a prestige indie flick, it’s a missed opportunity.
Lizzie Borden (the always-welcome Chloë Sevigny) lives in a household defined by a stifling patriarchy. Her father, a domineering and sexually abusive monster, seeks to control her at every turn through his incessant tyranny. Her stepmother tends to stay out of the way. Lizzie is far from passive, however, as we see in an early scene when she defies her parents by venturing out alone for a night at the opera. Severe punishments do little to sway her, and it’s evident from the get-go that there’s plenty of rage behind Lizzie’s obstinance.
The arrival of Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), an immigrant maid hired by the Bordens, prompts a rush of newfound desires in Lizzie. Whereas Lizzie is determined to fend for herself, Bridget has come to terms with a life of subservience. Despite their contrasting attitudes, they form an intense emotional and physical bond, which only tightens Lizzie’s figurative shackles. Mr. Borden escalates the situation’s urgency when he begins raping Bridget on a whim. It’s only a matter of time before one of these characters break.
Written out, this sounds like the prime setup for a potent period thriller, one where the threat of inescapable, violent tragedy might create a palpable claustrophobia. That’s why it’s perplexing that Lizzie so often feels like a slog. Even given the grisly nature of its premise, there’s no outright need for a movie like this to veer into overt slasher territory. Still, the end product feels far too self-serious for such a shallow examination of female oppression. The pacing is inert in a manner that feels stuffy instead of deliberate.
Part of this can be blamed on how early the film lays out its cards: Mr. Borden is clearly an evil, controlling presence from frame one, and there’s no doubt that his cruelty will cause Lizzie to break and seek bloody retribution. Until the crime is depicted in appropriately gruesome fashion, Lizzie suffers from the staid, airless aesthetic that plagues many second-tier costume dramas.
The performances by Stewart and Sevigny, as well as Noah Greenberg’s intimate camerawork, encompass the movie’s strengths. Stewart, who continues to mesmerize in underseen roles, delivers the type of powerfully understated work that’s become her trademark. She’s great at communicating a wide range of emotions by doing very little and remains one of the most magnetic actresses working at the moment.
Sevigny is unsurprisingly effective in conveying a woman whose indignance is rising to lethal levels. Greenberg’s camerawork makes frequent use of extreme close-ups and shallow depth of field (a technique I’m an absolute sucker for) that serve to enrich themes of isolation and suppression instead of merely looking pretty.
Lizzie was shot all the way back in 2016, and its inconspicuous limited release has been accompanied by almost zero publicity. That’s never a positive sign for something that appears this promising on paper. A film about the ruinous effects of chauvinism and sexual assault is maddeningly relevant today, and with a rich historical tapestry to draw from, it’s only a matter of time until a director tells this story right.