The ‘Lizzie’ Trailer Shatters the Myth of an Early American Nightmare

Finding empathy in one of the most notorious murders in American history.
Lizzie Trailer
By  · Published on August 3rd, 2018

Finding empathy in one of the most notorious murders in American history.

There is no other title card that fills me with frustration as much as “Based on a True Story.” I despise how it is often used to instill a sense of importance into the proceedings. The story you are about to see is real, and you should treat this film with the respect of history, blah, blah, blah, blah. All movies are fictional. They are written, shot, and chopped by humans. Each choice made on the page or on set or in the editing bay removes the “True Story.”

You will not find such label on the trailer below. Lizzie does not need to remind you of its real-life horrors. The myth of the title character’s ax murderer is engrained in most American children before we breach kindergarten. Lizzie Borden was accused but eventually acquitted in the killing of her parents. While a jury failed to place the ax in her hand, the media and a hundred years worth of pop culture condemned Ms. Borden as a psychopath.

Film may not be able to capture the historical truth; it can replicate emotional truth. Director Craig William Macneill, along with Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, is digging into the motivations of the players involved. Where the yellow journalism of the time was quick to highlight atrocity, we’re ready to massage some empathy from the grisly act.

The trailer opens with a scream and a splash of blood. We then meet Papa Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and catch a glimpse of nightly abuse. Casting the original Randall Flagg instantaneously puts the audience on the side of his daughter, and witnessing him smashing pigeons with a hammer seals the deal.

Stewart is Bridget Sullivan, a young maid struggling for monetary survival. When she is placed inside the Borden house, a relationship with Lizzie is struck. Macneill is not the first person to imply a lesbian affair between Lizzie and Bridget. In 1984, crime author Ed McBain postulated in a novel that the murders were the result of the parents catching Lizzie and Bridget romantically entangled. He went as far as to say that Bridget was the first person to strike, smashing the mother on the head with a candlestick. The maybes of it all certainly excite.

At the Sundance film festival this year, Lizzie received a rather lukewarm critical reception. Looking at Rotten Tomatoes today, the film sits with a firm albeit less-enthusiastic 70%. Fresh, but not a raucous hit by any means.

I’m happy whenever there is a potential to pick apart an accepted point of view. As a child, a morbid nursery rhyme regarding Lizzie Borden seriously spooked me:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one

What could drive a child to slaughter her parents? The very concept of fratricide would keep me awake at night. I’d stare at my ceiling from bed and wonder, what would Mom and Dad have to do to cause me to pick up the ax. My parents were pretty cool, kept me adequately fulfilled with a chest of Star Wars toys. Knowing that Lizzie Borden found a reason to hack away at her folks was my first introduction at the possibility of nefarious progenitors. One could be born into an evil life.

So, yes, “Based on a True Story” still irks. However, exploring accepted history and revealing alternative possibilities is essential in furthering human understanding. Film can achieve this better than any other medium. The myth and reality of Lizzie Borden welcomes this treatment.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)