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With Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, Lifetime is finally having some fun. Instead of a serious and somber tone, the television movie’s account of the infamous unsolved murders takes a lively approach (at least, as much as it can when portraying a double homicide). It’s also clear that Christina Ricci (Monster), who stars as Lizzie, relishes every moment of her portrayal, turning up the volume on her crazy eyes without spilling over into camp. The production’s choice of modern music also further ingrains the idea that this is a funkier retelling of the story, which has developed over the years from a tale of horror and media frenzy to becoming part of a schoolyard rhyme and pop culture.
There are many possible ways to tell the story of Lizzie Borden, who was put on trial and acquitted for the gruesome hatchet murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Mass., in 1892. The case against her was completely circumstantial, but convincingly so (and Lizzie herself didn’t help things by getting rid of pretty clear evidence). Still, there remain, then and now, several other possible scenarios regarding the crime and its perpetrator. Stephen Kay‘s (The Mod Squad) script chooses a linear narrative without alternative scenarios; they may be hinted at, but there is one clear murderer, whose guilt is ultimately made unquestionable.
In addition to a fervent Ricci, the cast features Clea DuVall (Argo), as Lizzie’s stoic and loyal sister Emma, as well as Billy Campbell (The Killing), in a small role as the family’s attorney. But the movie really belongs to Ricci, whose seductive Lizzie takes some liberties with libertine behavior, giving retorts about being a Sunday-school teacher “only on Sundays,” with a devilish curl of her lip. After the murders, she often creeps up on her sister and the family maid, smiling with unblinking eyes. Though the jury of the day could not believe a woman to be such a “feral … insane fiend,” (to quote the prosecution), Ricci makes it easy to visualize the kind of nature that would have led Lizzie on such a spree.
As for the nurture, the portrayal of the Borden household as repressive and unhappy is brief though clear, with many salacious suggestions that there was abuse, and potentially incest, between father and daughter. But the bulk of the movie focuses on the aftermath of the murders, including Lizzie’s strange reaction and behavior, and the trial. While the courtroom scenes essentially rehash known facts — both from within the movie and for those generally familiar with the case — Nick Gomez‘s (The Blacklist) direction keeps viewers engaged, and occasionally startled, with a number of stylish and gory flashbacks to the crime scene.
Despite the cinematic direction, the fast pace of the first act (which includes the murders) leaves the dialogue as blunt as the back of Lizzie’s hatchet. “You lie to everyone,” Emma says to her sister, who earlier had made the clear proclamation of foreshadowing: “Father has so many enemies … I have a feeling something bad is going to happen.” The movie also starts to lose its momentum during the trial, and then begins to unravel almost completely near the end, using a kitchen-sink approach to throw in brief and unnecessary moments. Lizzie celebrating at a party with the actress Nance O’Neil (Andria Wilson), for instance, is an unexplained relationship that will be lost on those who didn’t already know the details (both known and speculated upon).
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax makes its position on her guilt very clear, and that alone makes it a distinctive offering in the canon of material on the subject. The movie is not interested in delving deep into Lizzie’s psyche, or creating a horror thriller, or even giving a full historical account about society, women, and the law. But the major and minor facts of the crime are all there, along with an inventive soundtrack that gives the sinister tale a strangely light tone. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax: Christina Ricci gave some whacks; and when it all was said and done, it was in fact quite creepy fun.
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