Nearly everybody knows the old jump-rope rhyme about Lizzie Borden and the gruesome way she allegedly murdered her parents. Lifetime’s made-for-TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Axe covers the events of the murder and ensuing trial, but doesn’t really get any deeper into the crime than the schoolyard chant does.
The movie starts with Borden (Christina Ricci) living an unfulfilled life in a modest house in Fall River, Massachusetts with her father, Andrew (Stephen McHattie); her stepmother, Abby (Sara Botsford); and her sister, Emma (Clea DuVall). Her dissatisfaction is clear because she plainly states it. “I just wish I had the freedom to live the life I always imagined,” she tells a friend. Then later, “It’s difficult to dream in that house.”
Despite the on-the-nose dialogue, her particular grievances go unexplored. Apart from some expositional complaints that her stepmother’s family is living off of her father’s largesse (and in a much nicer house), the film doesn’t delve deeply into the causes of Borden’s unhappiness.
If the movie doesn’t give any insight into Borden’s psychology, it might seem that its focus would instead shift to the facts of the media-saturated trial. Keeping the character of Borden at arm’s length could serve to maintain an air of ambiguity around her guilt or innocence — and it does, but for only a short time. While there’s some investigation as the prosecution prepares its case, it’s not a removed, Zodiac-style retelling, sticking to the facts and evidence.
Instead, the desire for Lifetime made-for-TV movie-style camp undercuts any impartiality. The case unfolds, in bullet-point style, but the movie can’t help itself from showing a blood-splattered Christina Ricci wielding her hatchet. (Let’s just say the movie delivers what its title promises.) The movie’s goriest effect — the bloody, bashed-in face of Andrew Borden — is referred to over and over. So much for balanced.
Taken all together, Lizzie Borden Took an Axe is unsatisfying on every level. It doesn’t dig deep enough to make Borden a deliciously evil villain that still inspires some loyalty, like Hannibal Lecter or Joe Carroll. The procedural elements detailing the trial amount to dueling monologues from the prosecution and defense, making them more dry than dramatic. (And shallow, too: You see the hoards of press and gawkers at the trial, but their impact is never explored.) It doesn’t shed any new light on the century-old case. And the camp doesn’t go over-the-top enough to fulfill any kind of cheesy midnight-movie craving.
Director Nick Gomez makes certain attempts at style here, but his efforts are similarly mixed. The scenes leading up to the discovery of the bodies are shot like a horror movie. The camera has that handheld feel to it, giving a sense of immediacy. The courtroom scenes, on the other hand, are more sepia-toned, with a lot of cutting, blending historical hues with a contemporary pace. The movie similarly indulges in the trendy practice of juxtaposing the 1892 timeframe with modern music — selections like “Psychotic Girl” by the Black Keys — serving as an elbow to the ribs and not much else.
It’s surprising, then, that Ricci still manages to eke out a good performance from the muddled movie. She embodies the ambiguity the rest of the film struggles desperately to capture. When her big eyes flash, you can’t tell if she’s coy and cunning, or damaged and deranged. “Aren’t you a Sunday school teacher?” a friend asks her at a party, watching her swill liquor. “Only on Sundays,” she responds impishly. (She also makes the stiff 1800s clothes look at least a little stylish.) Almost equally effective is Clea DuVall, who alternates moments of real empathy and support for her sister with bouts of doubt and fear about her guilt.
Then again, those are also the only two roles that have anything to work with. Pity poor Gregg Henry and Billy Campbell, pitted against each other as prosecution and defense, respectively; their roles are more historic reenactments than anything else, and could’ve been plucked out of any true-crime television show.
The DVD of Lizzie Borden Took an Axe comes with no special features, so the release does nothing to help the movie transcend its made-for-TV status. (If you start to forget that the movie was meant for television, the way the story stops to accommodate commercial breaks will be a jarring reminder.) Instead, it’ll stay true to its Lifetime roots — something you’ll find yourself watching on TV, if there’s nothing else on.