Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sundance ’18: Lizzie

Lizzie Borden was the late Nineteenth Century equivalent of the Menendez Brothers. You might remember how she “took an axe.” At least she had her reasons, according to Craig William Macneill’s somewhat speculative Lizzie, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

You know the Borden household must be dysfunctional when they insist their new live-in maid, Bridget Sullivan, must be henceforth known as “Maggie,” just like her predecessor. Only Lizzie, the younger Borden sister, shows her the respect of calling her Bridget (actually, the internet says it was the exact opposite, but whatever). Quickly, a friendship blossoms between the socially dissimilar women that slowly evolves into a forbidden love.

Borden resents her father Andrew Borden’s strict rules and suspects he has allowed their wastrel uncle to squander her inheritance through his dodgy schemes. Of course, her father and step-mother Abby find mere friendship between the two young women highly problematic. When they discover the true nature of the relationship, the Borden’s continued domestic life becomes untenable. She will take proactive steps, but it all might be too much for the overwhelmed Sullivan to handle.

Macneill’s previous film The Boy was quite a sinister slow-burner, but the slow-burn of Lizzie is even slower. It truly stacks the deck against Old Man Andrew Borden so thoroughly, it is hard to understand how a just God could allow him to live so long. Of course, it is clear Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass set out to court favor with social justice mafia by giving Borden the most feminist, straight male-demonizing spin possible. Perhaps that is all well and good up to a point, but the conspicuous manipulativeness gets exhausting over time.

Still, there is no question Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny do fine work as Sullivan and Ms. Lizzie, respectively. The development of their relationship always feels convincingly organic. Frankly, as Andrew Borden, Jamey Sheridan might as well be reprising the demonic role of Randall Flagg in the 1994 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, except that was a much subtler performance. Alas, Kim Dickens and Fiona Shaw are stuck with entirely disposable parts: older sis Emma and stepmom Abby.

Regardless, we give ample credit to the design team that made modern day Savannah credibly pass for turn-of-the-previous-century New England. This is not a bad film, but it will disappoint genre fans who were blown away by the insidious subversive flavor of The Boy. Recommended primarily for Stewart fans and Lizzie Borden obsessives, Lizzie screens again this Thursday (1/25) and Friday (1/26) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.