It may be impossible to spoil the end of Lizzie, a psychological thriller based on a true story that’s been passed down like salacious gossip—and elevated to the status of American folklore—since the vicious episode went down in August of 1892. The story goes like this: Lizzie Borden, an unmarried member of Massachusetts high society, was 32 when her father and stepmother were slashed to death at home with a hatchet. Lizzie was the prime suspect.
It’s not hard to see why the case has carried interest for over a century: There’s a cheap frisson to bloody domestic crime stories, especially ones perpetrated by an outwardly benign party—in this case, a demure woman of the haut monde.
In Craig William Macneill’s new movie adaptation (previous Borden renderings have taken stage in a ballet and rock opera), Chloe Sevigny stars as the storied murderess, roused to violence not only out of personal indignation toward her father, but also out of devotion to the maltreated family housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). The escalating love story, along with the patronizing inhumanity of Lizzie’s father and uncle, make the movie a timely Lizzie Borden story update; and when the grisly murder scene does arrive, it feels like such a freeing feminist triumph that you’re tempted to stand up and cheer.
We’re introduced to Lizzie as she’s heading off to the opera. “Sit down! Stop!” yells her father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), as Lizzie adjusts her stylish headpiece and makes her way toward the door. He’s worried about what it will look like for her to go out on the town unaccompanied, but she’s far too headstrong to concede. Meanwhile, Bridget—known to all the Borden family but Lizzie as “Maggie,” a stock name for female servants—is new to the stately home, busy with the cooking and cleaning, as well as another, more horrid nighttime duty that she endures with quiet obedience.
Slowly, a romance begins to brew between Bridget and Lizzie—one that escalates with stolen glances, kind words, and the occasional caress. Lizzie suffers from epileptic attacks triggered by excess emotion, and as she begins to tremble one day while teaching Bridget to read, the movie slyly hints at her arousal. Neither Stewart nor Sevigny are stagy actors; rather, both imbue their characters with an effortless sense of realism and genuine romantic spark. Their chemistry helps to cut against the movie’s suffocating melancholy, which, at times, threatens to clog up the story like muck in a suburban Massachusetts drain pipe.
Still, this is the buttoned-up late 19th century we’re talking about. Even in fits of sensual passion (and in summer heat waves to boot) the women are cloaked in Victorian female straitjacket style: layers upon layers of chemises and corsets and petticoats. Though there’s little revealed of the outside world—most of the film unfolds inside the Borden manor—the 19th century garb is enough to remind us of the stiflingly prudish time period. Even the erotic scenes are gloom city; you get the feeling that Macneill was intent on avoiding the common pitfall of gratuitous lesbian sex onscreen, which leaves us with a love story that’s strictly PG-13.
But once the electrifying final murder hits, we understand what we’ve been waiting for. This is, by far, the sexiest scene in the film, complete with nudity and gore and Macneill’s ever-static camera finally leaving its tripod. The nakedness, of course, is Lizzie’s clever design to prevent incriminating blood from staining her clothing. But it’s also the perfect symbol of liberation, freeing the women from the draconian mores of their era. And as with Chekhov’s gun, the murder weapon—an ax that Lizzie and Bridget have both eyed throughout the film—is finally taken out and put to killer use.
It’s a stunning sequence, a feminist revenge murder for the books and a cathartic assault on the sexist system Lizzie and Bridget refuse to tolerate any longer. As a whole, the movie may not be perfect—its lifelessness can feel, at moments, as oppressive as the 19th century patriarchy—but don’t worry: Lizzie shows us all how to escape.