Of all the memorable figures in the history of American celebrity, Lizzie Borden is probably the one who was best remembered for having been acquitted of murder—at least until O. J. Simpson came along. She’s still the person best known solely for having been acquitted of murder. Although a Fall River, Massachusetts, jury found Lizzie not guilty of having taken a hatchet to her father and stepmother in 1892, the court of public opinion has never wavered much in its judgment of what happened that day; when Homer Simpson tried to wriggle out of a contract he’d made with the devil in “Treehouse Of Horror IV,” Lizzie was included in the satanically convened “jury of the damned,” along with Blackbeard, John Wilkes Booth, and Richard Nixon. (“But I’m not dead yet,” Nixon protested. “In fact, I just wrote an article for Redbook.”) And in the 1970s and ’80s, when some feminists—such as the filmmaker Lizzie Borden, who took Lizzie’s name when she directed Born In Flames and Working Girls—adopted her as a cultural hero, they weren’t sticking up for a woman who’d been wrongly accused, but half-ironically celebrating a woman who had a violent explosion and got away with it.
Lifetime’s new docudrama Lizzie Borden Took An Ax isn’t filling a much-needed hole by reminding viewers of a story that’s been obscured and forgotten. The details of the case—the main players, their whereabouts on the day of the murder, the family tensions that led up to it—have been depicted and replayed in previous TV films and Unsolved Mysteries-type shows. Aficionados of true-crime TV probably know this minor entry from a century-old police blotter better than they could describe the circumstances of the First World War.
But, in these days of movies and TV shows that were sorta-kinda inspired by something that really happened, it’s nice to see a film based on actual events that was written by people who did their homework. The problem is that Lizzie Borden feels as if the director, Nick Gomez (who, in a previous life, made the impressive ’90s crime movies Laws Of Gravity, New Jersey Drive, and Illtown) worked from a checklist that the writer, Stephen Kay, had prepared, instead of waiting for him to turn it into drama.
The best thing about Lizzie Borden Took An Ax is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unlike, say, the 1975 The Legend Of Lizzie Borden, it doesn’t attach mythic weight to the case, nor does it have any pretensions to use the case and the celebrity that came to Lizzie during her trial to say something about society or the time. It’s not really a serious character study, either: It’s just a period horror story starring Wednesday Addams as the high-strung monster from the playground jumping-rope rhyme, with costumes and furnishings (and a general lack of extras) that suggest a high-school play. (As Lizzie’s lawyer, Billy Campbell enunciates with such stiffly exaggerated care that he’s like an 8-year-old’s idea of a grown-up.)
In the opening scene, we see Lizzie and her sister Emma (Clea DuVall) leaving church with their father (played by Stephen McHattie, the low-budget, Canadian version of Lance Henriksen) and stepmother (Sara Botsford). Father Borden, it’s quickly established, is a rich skinflint, and the rest of the family chafes under his control. But there’s the promise of fun here, because, which is scored not to the kind of banjo-and-fiddle-pickin’ that might seem appropriate to the 1892 setting, but to the Black Keys’ “Psychotic Girl.” Contemporary rock songs turn up on the soundtrack throughout the film; they help to emphasize that Lizzie is a party girl who wants to shake a tail feather while she still can, and is frustrated by her killjoy father’s control over her life. “I just wish I had the freedom to live the life I’ve always imagined,” she tells a store clerk, while turning the subject to how roundly despised her father is, and how there would just be scads of likely suspects should he ever turn up with his face caved in.
To the degree that there’s even an idea for a character here, Ricci is a smart choice for her role. But she’s as constrained by the filmmakers’ lack of imagination as Lizzie is by her father. Despite a few fairly graphic images of the carnage on the couch, Lizzie Borden avoids luridness until the end, when it shows the murders themselves being committed. This seems intended as a startling reveal—though unlike, say, the murders of Jack The Ripper, there was never any great uncertainty as to who killed Lizzie Borden’s parents.
As the courtroom scenes demonstrate, the case against Lizzie was always pretty solid; she got off because the men on the jury simply could not process the idea that a woman could have done such a thing. (The courtroom scenes boast just one juicy moment, when Lizzie’s sister, questioned about why Lizzie burned the dress she was wearing on the day of the murders, blurts out, “Because it was old and terrible and we wanted it gone!” Gregg Henry, as the prosecutor, practically licks his lips as he looks around the room, his expression conveying the thought, “She’s not just talking about the dresssss!”)
The most interesting, and creepiest, thing about Lizzie Borden is the thought of all the years Lizzie lived after the trial in that same town—where everyone thought she’d committed patricide—especially the years she lived under the same roof as her sister. (Imagine what it must have been like in that house when it was late at night and the floorboards creaked. Which one of them jumped higher?) The Lifetime movie wraps up Lizzie’s later years in five minutes of screen time, complete with the requisite scenes of her being shunned at church, denied service at a store, and her sister telling her that the people who come to her parties only do so because of the curiosity value of meeting someone who “got away with murder.” But if the actual Lizzie Borden had been this dull, she would have had to do a lot more than chop up her parents to get anyone to come to her parties.
Directed by: Nick Gomez
Starring: Christina Ricci, Billy Campbell, Clea DuVall
Debuts: Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: Made-for-TV movie