In 1892, Lizzie Borden, a seemingly proper young lady from an upstanding Massachusetts family, was accused of brutally murdering her father and stepmother. Although she was tried and acquitted by an all-male jury, no other suspect was ever located. More than a century later, the crime continues to fascinate, puzzle and repulse. Did Lizzie really kill her parents? If so, what drove her to commit such an unthinkable act? And if she didn’t, who did?
Lizzie delves deep into the circumstances surrounding the notorious unsolved murders, as Lizzie and her housemaid Bridget Sullivan inch their way into a forbidden romance that shocks the family and sparks an unthinkable act of violence. The film explodes some of the many myths that have grown up around Borden in a compelling snapshot of two passionate and unconventional women trapped in the constrained life of 19th -century New England.
Making a film that offers a fresh take on the story of Lizzie Borden has been Chloë Sevigny’s passion project for almost a decade. The actor and filmmaker, who grew up in New England, has been intrigued by the tale of the famed murderess ever since she visited the Borden family home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her curiosity about Borden — and the events that may have driven her to violence — has inspired a tense psychological thriller that also provides a piercing glimpse of the life of an unmarried woman in 19th -century America.
“I had heard little tidbits about her all my life, but I didn’t really know her story,” says Sevigny, who commissioned the script and produced the film. “When I visited the house, I learned about her history and all the different theories about the murders. I began to feel a lot of empathy for her. Yes, she was possibly a killer, but she was also a prisoner of her circumstances. The legend is that she was an outcast and a loner, which made me really feel for her as a woman.”
At 32 years old, Lizzie was already an old maid in the eyes of her family and their community. She and her older sister Emma were living with their father, Andrew, and his second wife, Abby, at the time of the murders, and according to the repressive mores of the time, were expected to spend the rest of their lives there. Andrew was a wealthy man, with a fortune estimated to equal several million dollars today. But he was so careful with money that the Borden house had neither electricity, central heat nor indoor plumbing, although those amenities were commonplace for a family of their means.
Andrew was a protective, perhaps even controlling parent, who kept both his daughters on a short leash. With no job or assets of her own, Lizzie was looking at a lifetime under his thumb. “When you read about women at the time, many were virtual prisoners in their homes,” observes Sevigny. “They were under the patriarchal rule. The only way to get out of that house was marriage or death.” Lizzie lived in an era where male domination was not just the unquestioned rule, it was the law. But more than a century before modern day movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, she was not afraid to fight back in extreme ways. “She had no other choices,” says Sevigny. “She became an early pioneer for the idea of female autonomy.” It is believed by some that Lizzie also suffered from epilepsy in an age when the condition was not well understood. “I think she was very damaged after losing her mother and living with her condition,” Sevigny says. “I don’t think that she was innately a crazy person. She’s driven to the brink, and when a sympathetic person comes into the house ― their maid, Bridget ― she finds escape in their relationship.”
Sevigny notes that the sense of powerlessness and desperation that might have driven Lizzie Borden to commit a heinous crime is, unfortunately, something many women still regularly encounter to this day. “I think a lot of women find themselves in circumstances where they’re under a man’s rule — husband, father, whoever it may be — and have no one to turn to, no escape route, and no way to change those circumstances.”
Lizzie stars: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare and Jeff Perry