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Entries in Lizzie [2018] (1)


Lizzie (2018)

Hatchet-tag (Meat, Too)

Nearly two decades ago, The Matrix blew millions of minds wide open with the idea that reality is a fantastical construct designed to shield the human psyche from unimaginable true-life horrors. It may not be a coincidence that the film’s ascendancy in popular culture tracks with the advent of reality TV, which crafts storylines from drastically edited timelines, cobbled-together reaction shots, and voice-over, creating an illusion for its audience that is so perfect as to subtly reshape the real world,* year after year.

How was The Bachelor allowed to metastasize from an annual sideshow into a quarterly franchise with more spin-offs and crossovers than a flagship Marvel Comics title? What is social media, if not the most telegenic, most heroic version of ourselves blasted out to a potential audience of millions of like-minded e-celebs-in-waiting? What are politics today, if not extensions of those warped personalities--always performing, always proclaiming, always skimming instead of digging? News cycles are a quarter (or, generously, a half) of what they used to be, and will soon, I predict, shrivel to the length of commercial breaks--which are themselves becoming indistinguishable from the programming they allegedly interrupt.

It’s hard to shut the door on these things, to blue-pill yourself, as it were. And if you think that holing up in a theatre with a chilling yet romantic period piece about the Borden family murders constitutes refuge--I have some bad news.

Maybe it’s great news, depending on how open you are to peeking at the figurative man behind the curtain. Director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass have delivered one of the headiest and most subtly complex thrillers about the “Me, Too” movement you’re likely to see this year. Or maybe it’s about “Time’s Up”, or “Listen and Believe”. I’ve lost count of the hashtags, which will likely be out of date by the time I press “Publish” anyway.

Set in 1892 Massachusetts, Lizzie stars Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the thirty-two-year-old daughter of real estate developer Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan). She lives at home with older sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw), and not-so-dear-old Dad. Lizzie's is a life of boxed-in privilege. Absent any suitors, she goes to the theatre alone--unless her father randomly decides he’d rather not deal with the concerned whispers of polite society. Like Emily Dickinson, as portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in last year’s A Quiet Passion, Lizzie Borden has a cutting wit that is not always appreciated within her gilt cage; she is also given to debilitating seizures that confine her just as surely as the social norms against which she vainly yet persistently strains.

A third weight on Lizzie’s soul is her apparent lesbianism, which, in the period we’re discussing, was, I imagine, not dignified with such a scientific-sounding name--if it was spoken about all. By contrast, Mr. Borden has no trouble expressing his sexuality, as evidenced by late-night advances on the family’s new Irish-immigrant housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). Though these rendezvous involve candlelit, tiptoe navigation around creaky floorboards, Andrew’s indescretions might as well have been conducted at the breakfast table. As Mrs. Borden observes, sadly but resolutely, “I am continually astonished at the endless number of ways you find to humiliate yourself in this family”.

It’s unclear whether or not Bridget awakens something in Lizzie, or if the months-long snapshot of their lives into which we peer is part of a continuum that might explain the necessity of a new domestic in the Borden home. The young women develop a clandestine sexual attraction, but we get the sense that this isn’t the first for either of them. What little timidity precedes the back-of-the-barn kissing and scissoring feels more like Bridget and Lizzie testing the waters of discretion, rather than breaking free of societal shame. It’s a fascinating slant on courtship, and Sevigny and Stewart’s burgeoning lust comes off as genuine--not just tabboo or “hot”.

Dennis O’Hare pops up as the skeevy “Uncle” John, a business associate of Andrew’s. He’s involved in an unimportant side plot about taking over the Bordens’ fortune and shipping the daughters away somewhere--but not before putting the moves on Bridget and further drawing Lizzie’s ire. Is he the one responsible for sending notes to the home with ominous messages like, “Your sin will find you”? Or did Lizzie write them to upset her asshole father? Or are they figments of the many paranoid imaginations that occupy this increasingly cramped house?

I suspect you’ll care as much about these “B” through “D” plots as I did, which wasn’t very much. Like most people coming to this movie, the draw is not who-dun-what, but the grisly details of how what was done to whom was done. On the morning of August 4, 1892, six months after Bridget’s arrival, the bodies of Abby and Andrew Borden were found in their home, their heads rendered unrecognizable from multiple hatchet strikes.

Lizzie Borden was arrested and tried, but ultimately set free because, as Lizzie’s post-script points out, “a jury of men” could not believe that a woman was capable of such acts. We get to see what the jury could not, in a blood-drenched flashback that depicts an utterly naked Lizzie attacking her stepmom in the bedroom. Mr. Borden, who died an hour-and-a-half later, metes a similar fate, but the details of who initiated the assault and who all was in the room prove to be a nice surprise (which, if you’ve read this far, probably counts as a mild, but incomplete, spoiler).

These climactic sequences would have been far more effective had the director not peppered horror-movie atmospherics throughout the rest of the film. Lizzie works as a sizzling drama of repressed rights and bridled passions; no need to add creepy violin music to the score and rattles/bumps-in-the-night to the score. I won’t wade fully into the popular debate over whether films such as this are “real” horror movies or “art-house pictures with horror elements”--because I often come down on the “real horror movie” side. But Lizzie really is, I believe, at its heart, a sort of female-centric take on Brokeback Mountain. The “spooky” add-ons do nothing but distract from the bravura performances of Sevigny, Stewart, and Sheridan.**

The deeper draw to Lizzie, though, brings us back to “Me, Too”. The movie is decidedly, and perhaps justifiably, a misandrist work. Just as Get Out offered a stylized parable about racism that portayed all its white characters as villains, stooges, or accomplices, there is not one man in Lizzie who comes across as anything but skeevy. From the lascivious Andrew and “Uncle” John to the post-script jury I mentioned earlier, there isn’t a single non-detestable male on (or off) the screen.

I’m conflicted about this.

It’s possible that Lizzie never experienced tenderness, or any kind of kindness, from a man--and I’d go so far as to say it’s plausible during the periond depicted in the film. However, the emphasis on cartoonishly horrible masculinity, coupled with lines such as, “Men don’t have to know things, Bridget. Women do”, suggests an odd agenda behind the project--one that goes beyond the typical, “Look at how nighmarish things used to be” theme of most historical movies about oppression. No, there’s a sense here that Lizzie was conceived in and for this moment in time, envisioned as a call for women to stand up and (de)face the men who have held them back since forever.

In cases where such wrongs are evident, I am absolutely in favor of justice (minus the rending of skulls to pulp, of course). But I find it difficult to fully recommend a piece that is so vehemently anti-man as to perhaps reinforce the zealotry that has, for now, frozen the productive gender dialogue in our wider culture. Just as I don’t take to entertainment that depicts women as one-dimensional objects, and which portray men as the conquering, superior sex, I can’t quite get behind a piece that feels designed as an underhanded attack on potentially half the audience.

In the end, the jury’s underestimation of Lizzie’s gender allows her to slip the noose. That’s a fine karmic note that will no doubt leave some in the audience gasping in surprise and cheering in solidarity. It may be selfish, and indeed too much to ask, but I would’ve appreciated some kind of acknowledgment that allies exist (scarce as they may have been in 1892), and that there's room enough in this corner of the pop landscape for people like me, too.

*Not The Real World, which has remained more or less unchanged in its formulation since 1992.

**Okay, there’s one nice touch: in the aforementioned barn scene, the POV switches from an omniscient close-up of Lizzie and Bridget’s intimacy to a wider shot with just enough of a hand-held tilt as to suggest we’ve assumed the role of a voyeuristic character--perhaps "Uncle" John or Andrew Borden. The following shot puts that notion to rest, meaning we’ve either caught a happy accident in the movie or the filmmakers deliberately wanted us to feel as though we’ve walked in on something we shouldn’t see, in effect making us the very object of our main characters’ fears. I’m not so sure it works, but I always appreciate creators' efforts to jolt my movie brain out of passivity.