The world knows exactly one thing about Lizzie Borden: She hacked her parents with an ax. A lot. Not quite the 40 whacks each of the children’s nursery rhyme, but enough to slice her father’s face into mush, a crime so grisly, newspapers in 1892 wrote it could only have been committed by “somebody insane or a sane person whose heart is as black with hatred as hell itself.” Director Craig William Macneill’s “Lizzie” has another theory. The director re-imagines the murderess (Chloë Sevigny) as a powerless victim who literally slays the patriarchy. It’s a simple story made to rouse modern hearts, and the performances and cinematography are so good, the film nearly pulls off the trick. But after a solid hour of Hammer-esque tension, Macneill can’t resist bludgeoning us with an extended replay of the attack, which, ironically, turns out to be the dullest sequence in Borden’s miserable tale.

First, it’s important to know that the Bordens were rich, which is why we know Lizzie’s name at all. She and her spinster older sister Emma (Kim Dickens), an invisible presence, were the Menendez Brothers of the Gilded Age, two siblings in line to inherit a fortune. (Though at 22, considerably younger than in Macneill’s portrayal, Lizzie’s marriage prospects wouldn’t have been as dire.) Still, a wealthy man’s daughter in the Gilded Age had fewer options than an heiress today — instead of designing a vanity line of shoes, Lizzie was stuck at home fretting that her father Andrew (a scowling Jamey Sheridan) would will his fortune to his vile brother John (Denis O’Hare), figuring that women couldn’t handle the power.

Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass play their hands boldly. Andrew isn’t just a miser, which he was (the Bordens were locally infamous for refusing to upgrade to electric lights); he’s also a sexist, homophobic rapist. And Lizzie is a lesbian in love with their housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), an Irish immigrant who enters the film in a tidy brown dress looking as helpless as a little bird. She’s even got tiny feathers in her hat.

Next to her, red-haired Lizzie in her dramatic gray ruffles pinned with a pink pansy at the throat doesn’t seem so weak. Sevigny carries herself with determination. She enters the film with squared shoulders marching into the backyard to pick a pear. Later, when she picks up that ax, Sevigny strips naked so she doesn’t stain her clothes, removing her corset to transform into a primal, blood-smeared, mammal.

She and Stewart both have the strong, pointed jaws of people who aren’t as fragile as they first appear. Early on, Lizzie has a ferocious mouth, sniping at a mean girl who teases her for still using candlelight, “Are you an Edison?” That Lizzie vanishes after the first half-hour and the two lovers eventually go near-mute, which underlines the film’s ideas about female passivity, but also clashes with the headstrong girl we first met. Stewart’s maid is more straightforward and practical, the kind of character who gets filled with life just from the look in Stewart’s eyes. Unlike Lizzie, she affords herself no hopes for the future. On the day of the murder, she testified she was outside cleaning windows — which is true, given Bridget’s recorded testimony, and a perfect metaphor for the all-seeing servant who sees everything more clearly than the people inside.

But they’re both trapped in this three-story home, which is airless and quiet except for wonderful swells of psychologically unhinged music — maniacal violins, pounding piano keys that fade into crickets — that Macneill uses to take us from one terrible scene to the next. Otherwise, he keeps things hushed except for loud footsteps and creaks which make these hostile walls sound alive. On nights when Andrew tiptoes into Bridget’s bedroom, the camera stays on her agonized, but resigned face as she hears him approach. Afterwards, when Andrew creeps back to his wife (Fiona Shaw), the step-mother Lizzie loathes, the camera gives her the same sympathetic close-up. No woman here is happy.

Noah Greenberg’s cinematography is stunning. He frames his actresses with the house, shooting them in shallow focus behind windows and railings to make them look like prisoners. In this airless, dim darkness, they rarely look free. Even when Lizzie and Bridget first kiss in the barn and their faces flood with sunlight, the camera pulls back from their joy to remind us that they’re still stuck in Andrew’s domain. At best, they can use his house like a tool, hiding notes for one another once Lizzie teaches Bridget to read.

Lizzie’s court trial dominated papers for six months, and included such tantalizing bits as the shocking lack of blood in both corpses, almost as if they didn’t have blood in their veins after all. The film skims that to double-back and witness the crime itself, again and again, with little insight beyond that startling shot of Sevigny nude and trembling. The third act is a piffle, and merely hints at ideas it should explore. Reporters called the girl cold and unfeeling. Another paper Macneill doesn’t cite wrote that “throughout her surveillance and arrest, she acted with wonderful calmness.” Perhaps in reality, she was a sociopath. Yet, the film has filled her life with so much emotion that it seems poised to argue that male journalists just didn’t try to empathize. To them, maybe a woman’s point of view was simply unknowable, and if that’s Macneill’s point, too, he could have made it stronger.

Instead, what lingers is just violence of two genders at war, literally for their own survival. When a detective asks Lizzie if her father had any enemies, she replies, “This is America, sir. Every man with a pulse has enemies.” It’s a set-up for a hashtag — surely, not all Gilded Age men were abusive rapists. Yet “Lizzie” doesn’t dare let the audience disagree.

Film Review: ‘Lizzie’

  Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2018. Running time: 105 MIN.  

  • Production: A Powder Hound Pictures, Destro Films, Artina Films production. (International sales: Endeavor Content, Gersh, Los Angeles.) Producers: Naomi Despres, Liz Destro, Chloë Sevigny. Co-producer: Josh Bachove. Executive producers: Roxanne Fie Anderson, Elizabeth Stillwell, Edward J. Anderson, Carolyn Hunt, Bryce Kass, Myles Nestel, Lisa Wilson.
  • Crew: Director: Craig William Macneill. Screenplay: Bryce Kass. Camera (color): Noah Greenberg. Editor: Abbi Jutkowitz. Music: Jeff Russo.
  • With: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O'Hare.