Two striking things stand out about the meticulously realized 19th century in Craig William Macneill’s film, “Lizzie,” about the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders in Fall River, Massachusetts.
One is the surreal quiet that a world before telephones, electronic gadgets and non-stop media. Even without the distractions, family communication or any communication at all could be a strained, tricky thing.
And the other detail is the presence of axes. In a world where wood was still the main heating source and where home butchering of chickens was the norm, every house had axes everywhere.
The recent book, “The Man from the Train” investigated a possible late 19th century serial killer who generally did his victims in with an ax, and chose to storm into houses near train stations.
But even without that probable murder’s total, ax murders were far from a rare thing, even before Lizzie Borden allegedly “took an ax and gave her Mother” you-know-the-rest.
Macneill (“The Boy” was his) working from a Bryce Kass script, gives us tame-until-it-is-shocking film, glacially slow even as it makes that fateful turn we all know is coming. The Borden House is a seemingly serene setting fraught with tensions unseen and rarely expressed. The upper class Bordens, in this telling, are a family with secrets, motives and deep-seeded grudges.
And then a new maid (Kristen Stewart) shows up. Poor Bridget, Irish and labeled “Maggie” by the Irish-hating lady of the house (Fiona Shaw) has no idea what she’s let herself in for.
Father (Jamey Sheridan) is married to his second wife, a wealthy real estate speculator with a stern way with his two spinster daughters. Emma (Kim Dickens) stoically bears it. Lizzie (Chlöe Sevigny) doesn’t.
Father lectures her on attending the theater by herself, her “wanton displays” being “a public spectacle” (Lizzie has seizures) are “not helping your cause.” She is drifting past marriage age, and cavalier about it, further infuriating him.
But maybe she just hasn’t met Miss Right.
She asks for Bridget’s “proper name,” wonders if she can read and proceeds to take an interest in teaching her. Lizzie can hold her own with the sniping socialites she meets in public, and wears her father down in the simpler battle of wills.
Her bigger concern is what happens when he’s gone — not just his estate, but her own status. In a creaky, dead-silent wood frame house, there are no real secrets. The word “institutionalization” pops up.
And creepy Uncle John (Denis OHare, vulpine and stubbly) is sticking his nose in things, like Dad’s will.
The script frames this story as a flashback, telling us what happened in the months leading up to August 4, 1892. Macneill slow-walks us toward Lizzie’s date with destiny, and the speculative love affair that the film suggests was part of the day’s intrigues.
Stewart keeps Bridget passive, averting her eyes, always conscious of her place. It’s a compact performance, loneliness and powerlessness (Old Man Borden is a creeper) playing into her connection with Lizzie.
Sheridan is properly repressed, cruel and imperious, the “man in his castle” who probably has made many enemies with his real-estate dealings — somebody is sending threatening notes — “Your sin will kill you…The end is near.”
Sevigny’s Borden is altogether too colorless here to be a dazzling villain or victim, depending on how you want to interpret events. Her repressed defiance is more passive than steely and doesn’t completely come off, as Lizzie seems everything her doctor, father, stepmother and uncle believe — naive, highly strung, overconfident of her own cunning. She can be bullied, but she is a poor judge of when she can’t. She stages a stupidly obvious burglary at one point, desperate to secure funds to escape being put away.
Decades of horror cinema behind us, and the nature of the crime — here given a lurid twist by following one theory of how no blood was on the alleged killer’s clothes — still has the power to stun in their violence.
Macneill may impress us with his patience, the chilling quiet of it all, the occasional furtive camera placement capturing the beginnings of a lifeboat romance, two lost souls struggling to hang on to each other in a hell house in Fall River.
Mainly though, he underwhelms. The casting seems right, the pacing washes out the overbearing nature of these lives and waters down the motivations this script seems intent on providing.
It’s a hard sell, that “they have it coming.” Because as Eastwood’s soul-scorched bad man Bill Munny in taught us in “Unforgiven,” “We ALL do.” But nobody short of the most inhuman of human monsters deserved this.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some language
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chlöe Sevigny, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, Kim Dickens
Running time: 1:43