Directed by: Nick Gomez
Premise: Based on a true story, a young woman (Christian Ricci) is put on trial for the ax murder of her father and stepmother in 1892.
What Works: The Lifetime television network has long produced made-for-cable features, usually true crime stories like dramatizations of the trial of Jodi Arias or biopics of the lives of fallen celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith. The network’s movies have a reputation for being a bit hokey and sentimental but Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is slightly above what audiences have been conditioned to expect. At its core the movie has a pair of strong performances by Christina Ricci as Lizzie Bordon and Clea DuVall as her sister Emma. Ricci has had some experience playing dark or quirky characters and she puts that experience to work here. The key to playing a part like Lizzie Borden is in maintaining a visible tension between guilt and innocence. That Borden could have killed her father and stepmother has to be plausible but there also must be a possibility of innocence. Ricci maintains that tension throughout the film, with the character convincingly insisting that she is wrongly accused while also letting her façade slip just enough to suggest guilt. It’s a challenging act to keep up and Ricci maintains it throughout the movie. The other notable performance here is provided by Clea DuVall as Lizzie’s sister Emma Borden. DeVall’s character has conflicting allegiances between what she and everyone else suspects to be true and her sense of obligation to protect the last surviving member of her family. DeVall is the moral center of the picture and the impact of the death of her parents and the public shaming of the murder charge are felt through her. Aside from its performances, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is also notable for some interesting stylistic choices. Period pieces are usually expected to be dry or formal, but this film looks much more alive. The actors play it naturally and the movie periodically includes creative and distubing inserts of violence. The filmmakers also demonstrate an awareness of the significance of this murder case to American culture and they stage sequences to connect an event from 1892 with contemporary tabloid crime reporting. Images of a defendant and counsel making their way to the courthouse entrance while being mobbed by reporters and spectators is a cliché of legal dramas but staging that same kind of scene in a period piece set over one hundred years ago comes across very clever and gives the events contemporary relevance. The music by Tree Adams has a synth-rock style that also connects old material with the present and gives the film an energy that isn’t usually associated with a made-for-cable television movie.
What Doesn’t: Lizzie Borden Took an Ax was made for television and it frequently looks it. The lighting and camera work of interior scenes tends to look televisual and the DVD presentation of the movie still contains the fade outs that would have led to commercial breaks. Despite its stylistic flourishes the movie feels somewhat restrained; the filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of the Lifetime network movie but ultimately they are still within it. This story could go in some unusual and delightfully demented directions and at times there are flashes of that but the filmmakers never go for full-on crazy. The mystery of the movie isn’t all that mysterious. Actress Christiana Ricci is able to create an impression of ambiguity but the plotting isn’t so deft and there are a lot of unanswered questions, including some insert shots that imply a bigger conspiracy but are never explained. The finale of the movie offers a concrete answer to the murder mystery but it is important to remember that this case was never solved so the filmmakers’ conclusions are educated conjecture.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is fun as a PG-13 (or TV-14) dramatization of a classic unsolved murder mystery. Hardened horror fans will probably shrug at it but the movie has enough going for it in the performances and in its filmmaking style that it’s worth a look by fans of true crime stories.
Episode: #494 (June 8, 2014)