Shortly after the new live-in housemaid shows up in “Lizzie,” her employer asks her if she is comfortable in her new digs: “It can get quite hot up there,” he tells her.
Viewers of the new drama — which presents a quasi-feminist take on the infamous true story of Lizzie Borden, who may or may not have axed her father and stepmother to death in 1892 — will soon discover just how hot. In this intriguing but overheated indie thriller, director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass posit that Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) were involved in a relationship that dismayed Lizzie’s father, and that Mr. Borden (Jamey Sheridan) was interested in his employee in ways that are less solicitous than predatory.
It’s not an implausible theory. Lizzie and her father were known to have a tense relationship, most often said to be the result of his miserliness. And the film does include speculation about whether he was also considering cutting Lizzie out of his will or, worse, institutionalizing her for the seizures she periodically suffered.
But the sexual backstory is a new twist, one the filmmakers handle with less finesse than is healthy for the argument that they ultimately make. Burdened with a score of ominous, discordant string music, foreboding thunderclaps and occasionally histrionic dialogue, “Lizzie” limps along, a curious Gothic mystery yoked to a heavy 21st-century #MeToo agenda that feels ill-suited to its slight framework.
In the title role, Sevigny is something of a closed book, delivering a stolid performance that can be read as either strong-willed or stonyhearted. For her part, Stewart reverts to what has all too often been the actress’s default mode: a look of perpetual distress that resembles the face one makes after swallowing something unpleasant.
The film opens on the day of the grisly double murder (still unsolved to this day, but for which Lizzie was the only person charged). It then quickly backtracks to six months earlier, working its way through furtive couplings, while speculating about all the possible perpetrators, including Lizzie’s uncle, played by a scenery-chewing, vaguely creepy Denis O’Hare.
The Borden household, as presented here, is a veritable rat’s nest of deception, spite and simmering resentment, with Fiona Shaw, as Lizzie’s dour stepmother, turning in a nicely muted portrait of misery. Her long-suffering silence is in stark contrast to the behavior of her husband, who runs out to the barn one day and brutally slaughters Lizzie’s pigeons after she does something to irritate him.
Eventually, the narrative of “Lizzie” catches up to the day of the crime again, before jumping ahead to the trial. The evidence includes some strange testimony, such as this head-scratcher from a Harvard scientist, who asserts that “all the blood and hair samples” taken from the murder weapon were “found to be animal in origin — specifically bird.” (Huh? Since when do birds have hair?)
The story then flashes back, once again, to the actual murders, finally playing them out in all their lurid glory, complete with nudity, spurting blood and squishy sound effects that evoke a slasher flick. There’s a perverse pleasure to be taken in the bloodbath, but Macneill and Kass weaken their message of female empowerment by pushing it past politics to pulp fiction.
Rating: 2 stars
R. Contains violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some crude language. 106 minutes.