Done to Death

Lizzie has a clear message for us: we ought to care more about Lizzie Borden, whether or not we think she murdered her parents. Although–spoiler alert–she did, the film says, and we should still care about her because of that. If we eat up Dead Girl Stories and true crime, why not care about Killer Women too?

Macneill’s film starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart is the latest in the oeuvre of Lizzie canon–from a B&B to Lifetime movies, zombie slaying fan fic to bobbleheads. The film takes up where history leaves off. Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on a sultry August day in 1892. Evidence and a mistrial, not to mention Lizzie’s social status–she teaches Sunday school, she goes to the theatre–kept Lizzie from the gallows.

Lizzie posits its own theory behind this historical whodunit–that Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan, their live-in Irish housekeeper, fell in love and conspired to off Mr. Borden, who’s too cheap to pay for electricity and creaks up dark stairs at night to molest Bridget in her attic bedroom.

The film creates empathy formally: it spins a tight spool of spaces that trap Lizzie and Bridget: staircases are dark angles, people spy on each other through windows. The dread Lizzie builds within the home mounts tension that can only release when Lizzie and Bridget retreat to the barn. Here, Lizzie tends to her pigeons and tutors Bridget. The air is lighter and shots are longer. We yearn for moments of tenderness and reprieve alongside Bridget just as Lizzie does so that we too can escape from the gothic home. We long for a release from the tension and from the narrative that has gripped Lizzie since her case first became famous in 1892.

Lizzie and Bridget share their first kiss in the barn, allies against Mr. Borden, fortified in their resolve to support each other. A shot tracks their movements and pulses, enclosing them in their shared space. Sunlight soaks them and allows them to breathe for a moment: though they hide among the haystacks and aviary, there seems to be hope for them beyond the sickly, oppressive home. In moments like these, The Murders melt away and the story is instead one of love. Only after a cut do we see Mr. Borden watching through the window, aligning his gaze with our own. Though we know he’s coming from the scene preceding their kiss, we want to luxuriate in the barn with them just a bit longer before he intrudes, to let this story go somewhere else for once.

The claustrophobia of the film’s beginning delights in refractions like these. We watch Lizzie and the Bordens through mirrors and windows, the horrors and stolen kisses alike reflecting back onto the public that has gazed into Lizzie’s life with a voyeuristic lack of shame for time immemorial. A mirror casts Lizzie and Bridget’s first close embrace in double. Lizzie watches us watch the story and renders our gaze uncanny. Why do we want to watch this? What are we intruding on? With bravado, Lizzie acknowledges our desire when we watch a move about Lizzie Borden and turns that desire on its head, reflecting back onto us a different story of love, family strife, and female empowerment–the murders merely rumbling beneath the surface.

Through refractions and voyeurism, moments of dank, familial horror–Lizzie confronting her slimy uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), the family eating Lizzie’s pet pigeons for dinner–are juxtaposed against the airiness and headiness of moments Lizzie and Bridget share in the barn and Lizzie’s bedroom. Here the film surpasses its predecessors, transcending the gaudiness of the case and its details, locating the horror inside of the home and the structures that trap all of the women in the Borden household instead of in the crime photos and evidence. While everyone else seems to care about whether Lizzie did it, the film initially cares about who Lizzie was.

Yet after the murder, the film’s tight spool quickly unwinds, and it’s jarring. Any empathy created dissolves like the blood she washes away from the murder hatchet. Perhaps Lizzie is agoraphobic: when it looks out from the home and into the jail and courtroom, it loses its footing, unsure how to navigate the world. We lose the lens of mirrors and windows and watch events unfold more typically. We lose the tension once the film shows us what we came for: The Murders. John Morse and Bridget visit Lizzie in jail, and the film’s truth is presented in flashbacks. Instead of mounting dread through what remains unsaid and lying in wait in the house’s crevices, story usurps Lizzie’s agency, attention is devoted to showing us what happened this time around. Though the story is one of agency, Lizzie and Bridget become secondary to plot.

The people disappear, becoming once again the historical paper dolls we’re used to manipulating for play. Emma, her sister, and Morse feel particularly flimsy while Bridget and Lizzie’s romance fizzles, never allowed to consummate before the murders gobble up screen time. Bridget lies on the stand to defend Lizzie, she cannot summon the rage within her to murder Andrew Borden as planned, and she moves away from Fall River after the trials. Bridget visits Lizzie in her cell and asks what she was to her. She feels used, spat up, secondary to Lizzie’s desire to overthrow the patriarchy and secure her inheritance. She’s another girl in a story about a murder. None of this is aided by Chloë Sevigny’s chilling, stone-faced performance. Was Bridget but a tool for her, or was their love something grander?

At the same time, we have to ask what they all mean to us, and by the end of the film, they don’t mean much: Lizzie and Bridget become vessels through which we may explore the latest theory. In ascribing so much attention to the murders and creating a cohesive narrative around them, Lizzie spends less time slowing down and delighting in the light of the barn or listening for the creak of the stairs, wondering if the bedroom door will be opened again tonight. Though it aspires to something greater, it allows the desires of the culture more broadly to shape whom, or rather what, we watch on screen. Lenses crafted earlier in the film shatter; we’re back to watching what we’re accustomed to by now.

Lizzie has been done to death, whether theorized, filmed, or written about. The end of the film no longer reflects onto us. Rather, it shows us what we expect. It offers up its own account of the murders, and the people meant to gain our empathy earlier on become secondary to this story. Instead of using a worn figure to tell a new, strong account of a female antihero, or women in love in 1890s Massachusetts, it suffers from the perceived need to answer the question inherent to Lizzie: did she do it?

Michael Colbert is a writer based in Portland, Maine. He loves horror film (his favorites are Candyman and Rosemarys Baby), and he’s a coffee addict (his favorites are Costa Rican and Ethiopian). His work has appeared in such publications as Germinal, Gravel,  and the Worcester Journal.