Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014)
This Lifetime true crime TV movie basically sets out the same ‘solution’ to the 1892 mystery that The Legend of Lizzie Borden did in 1975 – that spinster Lizzie Borden stripped naked to murder her stepmother and father, explaining why no blood was found on her clothing. Here, after Lizzie is acquitted, it is implied that she confessed to her sister, who became estranged from her. Nick Gomez, who has mostly been working in TV since his debut Laws of Gravity, gets top-flight performances from an interesting cast – and goes with the mixed-blessing tactic of using non-period folk/rock music tracks overlaid on several sequences, perhaps to suggest Lizzie is a modern type of celebrity accused (besides murder, she’s also apparently a habitual shoplifter), along with a few candle-lit party scenes which similarly don’t feel strictly in period.
Stephen Kay’s script writes one major suspect out of the case – the stepmother’s brother, who was in the house at the time – and picks up on many theories and previous interpretations, hinting at an incestuous or at least odd relationship between Lizzie (Christina Ricci) and her stern father Andrew (Stephen McHattie) but also the possibility that she had a lesbian flirtation with a glamorous friend. Ricci is the big draw here, and she’s terrific throughout in a role which requires her to seem like a neurotic persecuted innocent and times and a calculating psycho-killer at others. She makes great use of that scary smile she once flashed as Wednesday Addams and even has one William Castle-like sudden appearance. Clea DuVall, who looks more like the historical Lizzie than Ricci does, is more interior and reserved as Lizzie’s initially supportive, eventually horrified sister Emma.
With Gregg Henry and Billy Campbell as opposing lawyers, reading from what sound like the trial transcripts, and Sara Botsford as the stepmother who has to be killed well before her husband or else the inheritance will go to her family rather than the daughters. For a TV movie, it’s extremely explicit about violence – with Hannibal-level gore and a disturbingly realistic McHattie with his face axed in head – but coy about nudity, even in a story where it’s a major plot point.
This covers much the same historical ground as the Elizabeth Montgomery TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) and the Christina Ricci picture Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014), but rejigs things a little. All versions take as read the (unproven) theory that in 1892, spinster Lizzie stripped naked to axe murder her parents, making sure her stepmother died well before her father so the inheritance came to her sister and her rather than the mother’s family, thus explaining why no blood was found on her clothes. Chloe Sevigny’s Lizzie strips to plant the axe repeatedly in Abby Borden (Fiona Chase) but then does away with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) while fully clothed – Bryce Kass’s script assumes we know why she took her clothes off and never discusses it, then fails to reconcile the visibly blood-spattered dress with what was hashed over at the trial – because in this version, she was expecting maid/lover Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) to kill Andrew, who had been forcing himself on her, but though Bridget gets her kit off she can’t go through with the hatchetwork.
Others have suggested Lizzie’s sister Emma (Kim Dickens) was complicit, though this doesn’t give her much thought – a key plot point has to be established in the closing caption, that the sisters were estranged soon after they came into the money after Lizzie’s acquittal – and there’s a sinister presence in Andrew’s crooked brother-in-law (another great ratlike Denis O’Hare performance), who was sending threatening letters to Andrew as part of a campaign to manipulate him into making a will giving him custodianship of the money. Kass and director Craig William Macneill (The Boy – not the evil doll/hider-in-the-house one, the psycho kid slowburner) are being fanciful in their speculations, but I wondered whether this wasn’t as much to do with putting clear blue water between Lizzie and Lizzie Borden Took an Axe – which gives its antiheroine another lesbian lover – as actual true crime theorising. Sevigny and Stewart are excellent, but keep getting things piled on their plates – spinsterish repression, epilepsy, sexual abuse, scandalous sapphic longings, an Irish accent (Stewart does this fine), class distinctions (Mrs Borden calls all her maids ‘Maggie’ because she can’t be bothered learning names), sentiment and violence (the very explicit video nasty bludgeonings pay back Andrew’s mass murder of Lizzie’s pigeons, which he then has served at dinner), historical stuff about the legal injustices of a woman’s position in the 1890s, and a PatriciaHighsmithy murdering couple premise that finds the cold killer taking over when the weak partner doesn’t come through.
It does well by the socially and psychologically stifling atmos of Fall River, Mass. – though only gives lip-service to the actual heat, which was a big thing in the story. Bridget is told to leave her door open all the better for Andrew to rape her because her tiny room overheats at night – but no one seems to sweat and the well-known fact that Andrew was taking an afternoon nap because of the heat when he was killed is set aside so we can have a three-way confrontation. Despite all the speculation and the handy alternate suspects, all the major LB movies print the legend – as espoused most immortally in pop culture in the song ‘You Can’t Chop Your Mama Up in Massachusetts’ – that she did it (and did it naked) … this one follows the trend of making her sympathetic and her parents so horrid that a jury (ie: the audience) would let her off on the grounds of justifiable homicide if they knew about all the backstory, though again it’s left to a caption to explain that the real reason she was let off is that the all-male jury couldn’t conceive that a woman of her class could commit such gruesome murders.
So, after a whole film speculating that axed-in-the-face Andrew Borden deserved what was coming to him because he was a villain for the ages – a cruel Victorian melodrama father and now an incarnation of patriarchal privilege and sexual exploitation – comes a footnote indicating that twelve nameless men of his era were idiot stuffed shirts … though, frankly, history agrees with the jury that the murder charges weren’t proven and every dramatic version insists that there were more factors at work in the case than can be summed up in a nursery rhyme.