The spitting, milky faces of our enemies, refracted, everywhere surround us. They bark and hiss out of our phones, in our very hands. It is nasty work, playing captive audience to the Patriarchy's long and gruesome striptease. We have been left with certain longings. Lizzie, the most recent installment in the long mythologizing of axe murderess Lizzie Borden, is almost a queer bloodletting we needed.
The film, which features Chloë Sevigny as the eponymous axe murderess and Kristen Stewart as Bridget, an Irish immigrant housemaid preyed upon by Mr. Borden (whose serial rape of Bridget is explicit and whose long abuse of Lizzie is suggested), draws on years of speculation that at the heart of the Borden murders lies an illicit gay affair.
It is a captivating theory, based partly on rumors that circulated during Lizzie's lifetime of a presumed affair with a well-known and husbandless actress, a handful of posthumously recovered letters addressed to a female beloved, and the fact that only Lizzie and Bridget were present in the Borden household when the murders occurred, and that Bridget was instrumental in providing the alibi that contributed to Lizzie's acquittal.
In this version, Lizzie Borden took up her axe to emancipate herself and her lover from abuse at the hands of wicked persons (Lizzie's rapist father, her complicit step-mother, and a rakish uncle bent on stealing the Borden sisters' inheritance out from under them), and in the form of oppressive economic systems (servitude in Bridget's case, sexist inheritance laws in Lizzie's). In setting white femininity against a suffocating New England which the heroine must literally carve her way out of, Lizzie recalls 2015's The Witch. But unlike that film, which is able to imbue the surfaces of repression—raw wood, white linen, woolen skies—with a visceral, erotic anxiety, Lizzie's surfaces (taffeta and stodgy wood panelling) are merely dull.
The first act of the film, which may have been entitled People Stand Around in Hallways, leans too heavily on the assumption that a woman in a Belle Époque frock holding a candle is an inherently unsettling image. The performances, Sevigny's in particular, also suffer from this botched shorthand: what looks like an attempt to play possessed and walk freakily down the hall plays in effect with all the drama of a dessert cart wheeling serenely on its rollers. Even the great Fiona Shaw, who plays Mrs. Borden, is called upon to do little more than purse her lips and look worriedly around before succumbing to Lizzie's hatchetations.
The film's ideas, which tie Mr. Borden through both his business interests (hints of shady land dealings) and his overt sexual menace to a rapacious Gilded Age capitalism against which Lizzie must assert her erotic and financial freedom are certifiably Relevant, as is the the way in which we ultimately come to understand that Lizzie is another rich white rebel who will pay for nothing, and whose strident self-emancipating gestures risk the actual lives and livelihoods of others, in this case Bridget, who suffers the ignominious fate of having to move to Montana. "You're dreamin,'" she tells Lizzie, before she goes.
Lizzie's greatest success is in painting Mr. Borden and Lizzie as horror-twins, each prone to fits of explosive violence, each in their own way entrapping Bridget in a bourgeois sexual fantasy of transgression and dominance. But these revisions, even if they succeed complicating the myth, are ultimately limited by an inert script ("You're home early," Mrs. Borden announces flatly to her husband, who is home early), and, excepting Kristen Stewart and, when she takes up her axe, Sevigny, a set of largely inert performances. The hunt for Lizzie Borden, gay icon, continues.
James Loop is a writer living in New York. You can find him online in Hyperallergic, the Lambda Literary Poetry Spotlight, and @jimmytheloop.