Director: Nick Gomez
Writer: Stephen Kay
Producer: Michael Mahoney
Stars: Christina Ricci, Clea DuVall, Gregg Henry, Stephen McHattie, Shawn Doyle, Sara Botsford, Hannah Anderson, Andrea Runge, Billy Campbell
When Abby and Andrew Borden are found butchered by an ax inside their Massachusetts home, their daughter Lizzie stands accused of the brutal crime.
Maybe Lizzie Borden took an ax. Maybe she didn’t. A jury’s verdict and a jump-rope rhyme have conflicting thoughts on the matter and, until its closing minutes, the Lifetime movie “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” does too.
Stephen Kay’s script paints Lizzie with strokes of callous kleptomaniac, pathological manipulator, and even incestuous temptress. Then Christina Ricci bats her lashes over bright white orbs to say, “who, me?” when demure little Lizzie stands accused of repeatedly parking an ax in her father’s face after doing the same to her stepmother’s back. This particular slant on history’s most notorious unsolved ax murders portrays a selfish Lizzie as ready, willing, and able to participate in any sociopathic behavior as long as there is something in it for her. At the same time, it never wants to completely abolish the possibility that perhaps the jury made the right call, so bets are hedged without stepping in cement one way or the other. Even an implied confession at the climax arrives by way of an unheard whisper, just in case an exonerated Lizzie is ever to rise from her grave and sue for libel.
It begs the question of why Lifetime stops short of dipping her head to toe in the black tar of outright villainy, since her witchy behavior casts Lizzie in an unsympathetic light shortly after the opening credits complete. It feels as though “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” made it past the exposition phase and realized it had no way to build suspense without tying in a whodunit. Rather than rewrite introductory scenes, doubt about Lizzie’s involvement is injected instead with quick cuts to shifty-eyed drifters, a brief moment of torrid passion with a uniformed stranger, giving Lizzie a morphine haze to explain her conflicting testimony, and patently pandering with overly deliberate lines like, “my father has so many enemies.”
Borrowing templates from “Special Victims Unit,” “Trial by Jury,” and “Criminal Intent,” “…Took an Ax” more or less rolls itself into an 85-minute episode of “Law & Order: 1892.” You can almost hear the trademark “dun-dun” at each scene change while the story slaloms through formula gates of crime, investigation, interrogation, trial, and semi-resolved epilogue.
Sensing it might have too many mustaches and muttonchops dryly debating details while tightly-corseted hens fan themselves in Victorian fashion, someone on the production makes a decision that contemporary flair should be added through music. The result is a confusingly anachronistic soundtrack alternating between plucky period banjos and distorted blues guitars screeching alongside a Jack White soundalike. This is a Lifetime movie built for broad appeal, and not a factually accurate History Channel documentary, but the inconsistency in atmosphere is jarring at best and misplaced at worst.
Something about a heinous crime being 122-years-old somehow makes it acceptable to approach as stylized entertainment without feeling guilt over exploiting two tragic murders. Only in America can a double homicide have its crime scene become a bed & breakfast, events exaggerated into a schoolyard stanza, and the entire story sensationalized with a hipster rock soundtrack for a Saturday night of popcorn and boxed wine. Perhaps audiences in 2116 can look forward to an “O.J. Simpson Took a Knife” telemovie complete with whatever would pass for a pop music trend at the time. One can only cringe at the thought of hearing this echo on a 22nd century playground:
O.J. Simpson took a knife,
Killed Ron Goldman, then his wife.
When he saw what he had done,
White Ford Bronco, on the run.
That has hardly the same ring of harmless fun when only 20 years have passed. Possible insensitivity aside, “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” fuzzies mostly just the facts these types of docudramas usually fudge. Timelines are shortened, characters are merged, and miscellaneous details see alterations for dramatic effect, though the spirit of true events is still there. Until an ending that cheats by not being upfront about the timeline. Despite a clue that Lizzie and her sister Emma have clearly moved into a new house named Maplecroft, the implication is that Lizzie admits her guilt at a time when the crime is still fresh, causing Emma to move out and the two sisters to become permanently estranged. In actuality, this incident took place 13 years after the trial, diminishing the likelihood of their falling out being related to any new revelation about the murders.
As a movie meant for entertainment, “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” has no responsibility to solve the crime or to be the definitive depiction of what happened in Fall River on August 4, 1892. But it does have to satisfy as a mystery thriller. The answer to whether it does or does not is about as clear as Lizzie’s guilt or innocence. Coming out of the film with any new insight on the case is a lost cause. So is going in with any expectation of high art with serious stakes. But see it for the broad appeal melodrama it only wants to be and recall its apropos rechristening as “Law & Order: 1892.” There might be just enough edge in the soap opera styling to make it mildly worthwhile as a period police procedural with a tawdry courthouse conclusion.
Review Score: 65