This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lizzie’ Brings the Queer Subtext to the Fore in the Latest Telling of Ms. Borden’s Ax Murders

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CREDIT: Courtesy of Saban Films and Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare, Kim Dickens

Director: Craig William Macneill

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Deadly Violence and Practical Nudity

Release Date: September 14, 2018 (Limited)

Lizzie is in some ways a throwback to an era when queer attraction was subtextual and coded and never explicitly acknowledged. Except that this time there’s a lot more nudity, which would seem to defeat the purpose, save for the fact that this lack of clothes is not about sex but rather avoiding the evidence of blood stains. Otherwise, the structure fits, as this telling of the Lizzie Borden story plays up the angle of an affair between Lizzie and her family’s housemaid without ever uttering the word “lesbian,” instead opting for whispers and implications and the occasional “abomination.”

The real Borden was accused and ultimately acquitted of ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 Massachusetts. While popular perception has treated her as the no-doubt-about-it culprit, much of the case remains officially uncertain, lending fictional retellings a lot of leeway in how they approach the material. Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass choose to emphasize psychological abuse from Borden’s father Andrew that gradually wore Lizzie down to murderous intent. Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie as a perfectly dignified and intelligent individual who cannot quite handle the cognitive dissonance of her father insisting that she in fact has no place in polite society. As Andrew, Jamey Sheridan actually finds some tender notes, but his foundation of disgust is just too implacable.

Of course mention must be made of Kristen Stewart as the Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan. Most of the family call her “Maggie” instead, which might be an archaic form of discrimination I was previously unfamiliar with (any turn of the 20th Century American historians, please let me know). Her bond with Lizzie is forged a great deal by the latter making it a point to actually call Bridget “Bridget.” Alas, but unsurprisingly, their time together is not meant to last, partly because of their power differential, partly because of the fallout of co-conspiracy, but mostly because society would force them to remain a secret. Yet in the end that suppressive atmosphere is a double-edged sword: it allows Lizzie to get away with murder because her peers cannot believe that someone from such a respectable family could commit such a heinous act. If they knew her true orientation, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion. That’s a warped sort of privilege that this version of Lizzie could never fully psychically bear.

Lizzie is Recommended If You Like: Twisty/twisted/stomach-twisting feminist narratives

Grade: 3 out of 5 Axe Chops

This Is a Movie Review: Sully

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The main conflict driving Sully is the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into US Airways Flight 1549. The implicit question seems to be: Was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger really a hero? To which presumably every viewer would respond, “Of course!” I suppose the NTSB must do their due diligence to determine if an emergency runway landing was possible, but at a certain point (i.e., right away), you can’t help but ask, “These people do realize that both engines failed and yet everyone survived, don’t they?”

The easy criticism would be to say that Sully should have just focused on the actual Hudson River landing (by far its strongest feature in both technical and dramatic heft). The trouble, though, is that wouldn’t make for a very long movie. The birds fly into the engines almost immediately, there are then only a few minutes to decide what to do, and rescue crews are right on the scene. If this were all shown in real time, it would last about 30 minutes. The entire flight is basically presented twice over, and that is mostly a good decision.

Eventually, everyone decides that indeed this was heroism of the highest order (and not just from Sully, but from everybody involved), and somehow, instead of saying, “Took you long enough,” I instead was roused (and relieved by a zinger of a final line). That is due mostly to high-class acting – of course Tom Hanks as Sully, with Aaron Eckhart right by his side, and also Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Jamey Sheridan too awesome to hate as the NTSB crew. (Laura Linney does what she can with the cliché role of “hero’s wife on phone,” which is to say: she’s Laura Linney.) The ultimate results of the investigation declare: this rescue was even more amazing than we could have ever imagined. We were already pretty sure about that, but now we’re sure enough to last two lifetimes.

I give Sully 8 Happy Endings out of 10 Frantic Phone Calls, but I must take away 2 Canadian Geese for the Probably Unfair Treatment of the NTSB.

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

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There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.