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‘Lizzie’ review: Bringing context to a gruesome story

This new Lizzie Borden film explores motivations behind the vicious ax murders.

Kristen Stewart, left, and Chloë Sevigny star in

Kristen Stewart, left, and Chloë Sevigny star in "Lizzie." Photo Credit: Saban Films/Roadside Attractions / Eliza Morse

Lizzie

Directed by Craig William Macneill

Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Fiona Shaw

Rated R

Playing at Angelika Film Center, The Landmark at 57 West

The story of Lizzie Borden, the 19th century Massachusetts heiress acquitted in the ax murders of her father and stepmother, has been a bedrock presence in cultural works for decades.

In “Lizzie,” the filmmaker Craig William Macneill goes back into the well, once more dramatizing the cryptic circumstances behind the murders and engaging with the immense mythology built up surrounding them.

The movie has lots to recommend, particularly in the quality of the acting and rendering of the grim atmosphere, but it also has a propensity to oversimplify a harrowing and morally complicated situation.

It contextualizes the story within the framework of a romance between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the family’s Irish maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), which is not supported by verifiable real-world facts and is, in the world of the movie, deeply affected by the monstrous conduct of dad Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) in obvious ways.

Screenwriter Bryce Kass adds a touch of further motivation in an uproar over the family fortune, which Andrew wants to put in the care of similarly lecherous Uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) rather than Lizzie or her sister Emma (Kim Dickens).

There are moments in “Lizzie” that effectively dramatize the harrowing impact of patriarchal tyranny, while Sevigny gives a performance defined by calculating strength and resolve. Her Lizzie knows exactly what she’s doing and why she is doing it.

It’s pretty clear to the rest of us, too, why the Lizzie of “Lizzie” feels compelled to take gruesome, bloody action.

That straightforwardness, really driven home by the romance, robs these events of their most haunting, opaque quality. There should be a degree of ambiguity here in terms of the character that’s missing. The story endures, after all, in part because it’s so inexplicable.

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