Lizzie Review (Sundance 2018) - A Gothic Indictment of Male Pride - Dread Central
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Lizzie Review (Sundance 2018) – A Gothic Indictment of Male Pride



Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan

Written by Bryce Kass

Directed by Craig William Macneill

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.

The story of Lizzie Borden is far from new; its notoriety has hardly decreased since the actual trial took place. Since the 50s, the story has appeared on film in several forms; but rarely has this perspective of the infamous killer been taken. We know Lizzie as a brutal psycho who killed her parents – but have we ever wondered what drove her to it? Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, orchestrated by modern horror maestro Craig William Macneill, led Sundance audiences through this connundrum last Friday night; and turn what could have been another sensationalized melodrama into an empowering, brutal character study.

It’s not news that the film centers around a vicious double axe murder; though it may come as a pleasant surprise that Macneill and team don’t shy away from the case’s gruesome nature. The bulk of the story revolves around Borden’s oppressed life prior to the murder, however – her laschivious, controlling father watches her every move, while she fears he is squandering her inheritance on embarrassing vices. As their relationship boils to hatred, Lizzie grows closer to the family’s maid, timid Irishwoman Bridget Sullivan. The love that grows between them becomes as strong as Lizzie’s will to survive – at the darkest of costs.

Chloë Sevigny has long been a Sundance staple, and her costar Kristen Stewart is becoming a familiar face at the festival as well. Considering the notorious synopsis, their involvement might sound like a stunt; but their chemistry on screen is undeniable. They’re both nervous, subdued – Sevigny is tangibly anxious, sometimes unsettling – but bold as well. Through their awkward sweetness, their love becomes plausible, and we don’t need to see graphic sex to feel it. The cast around them provides depth and layers as well – Jamey Sheridan brings both insidious pride and vulnerability to his infamous father, genre veteran Denis O’Hare is chilling as the Bordens’ greedy uncle, while Fiona Shaw makes a mark as the cold but fierce stepmother.

Director Macneill – previously behind The Boy and the first season of Channel Zero – displays an impressive understanding of Gothic cinema here. The film’s imagery is stark but evocative, often full of candle-cast shadows, while the sparse music brings a level of dread to seemingly mundane proceedings. With a sharp script penned by Bryce Kass and the well-calibrated performances, Macneill mounts the tension slowly, maybe too much so; but the patience primes the audience for the heightened violence that occupies the film’s final moments. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned horror film – it carries the seriousness and weight of an author like Joyce Carol Oates. There’s humor and tenderness as well, though, which sets the film apart from other entries like it. The horror and heart alike come from human behavior.

This movie doesn’t flinch from the violence that made its source material famous, but it doesn’t rely on it, either. This is an actor’s film, and Sevigny and Stewart prove themselves more than capable of carrying it. Their sensitive, focused characterization lends the disturbing act a shocking amount of empathy. These women are trodden upon and degraded by hideous, pitiful men; indeed, the male characters in the film are almost universally unpleasant; and their willingness to bite back, through dialogue and action alike, speaks to a new, vital boldness. Through Macneill’s sensitive approach, the film shifts morality in a beautiful way. It’s imperfect, but it rewrites history in a way that reminds us of what villainy really means.

  • Lizzie


Slow-paced and subdued in its Gothicisms, this rendition of an infamous murder lends it both horror and pathos through vivid performances.

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