Review: ‘Lizzie Borden Took An Ax’ is a swing and a miss

There’s a lot to like about “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax” (Sat. Jan. 25 at 8:00 p.m. on Lifetime). It’s a thoroughly modern take on the woman who made parental murder the stuff of a catchy little rhyme perfect for jumping rope. The music is slick (songs by the Black Keys, Sons of Jezebel and the Kreeps jazz up the soundtrack), the cinematography slicker, the cast stellar. Christina Ricci, with her doe-like eyes and callous smirk flutters easily between insincere delicacy and murderous glee. It’s all such fun… if only it worked.

Film schools love to trot out great films (or, at least, greatly successful films) in order to teach students about the importance of structure and character development, but I think more could be learned from movies that miss the mark as squarely as this one. Despite a handsome exterior, the movie (directed by “The Blacklist”‘s Nick Gomez) can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Is this a story of how a young girl becomes a sociopath? For a few minutes, sure. Is it a Gothic horror movie? Okay, yeah, that’s in there. Is it a courtroom drama? A traditional biopic? Let’s throw all that into the broth, too!

The problem, unfortunately, is that the filmmakers can’t decide if they want Borden to be a horror movie psychopath (the moment when Ricci sneaks up on Clea Duvall, who plays Lizzie’s conflicted but loyal sister Emma, has a musical sting right out of ‘Psycho’ — just try not to laugh), a misunderstood antihero or possibly innocent, as Borden was found by a jury. While the movie purports to keep us guessing, it’s pretty clear from the jump that Lizzie was a hateful piece of work whether or not she killed her father and stepmother — and, despite a brief segment during the trial when it’s suggested the crime might have been committed by another, it seems to be a detail tossed in for the history junkies instead of an actual red herring we’re meant to follow.

That Lizzie is our main character when logically Emma should be our sympathetic lead into the story (especially if there’s to be any doubt as to whether or not Lizzie committed the crime) may be edgy, but it makes for a dull slog. While some of Lizzie’s decisions seem halfway justified as reasons to pick up an ax due to the creepiness of her relationship to her father (not only is it inferred there might have been incest, Mr. Borden was so cheap he fed the family rotten meat), it’s clear that Lizzie is far past the point of being an angry wounded child — but rather an adult with a game plan and the icy nerve to carry it out. 

While there seems to be great effort to stay true to many of the historical facts of the case (well, except for the ending), the reality is that this gives us just enough information to make the movie seem like a mish mash of information as opposed to a coherent whole. Some storylines, such as the one involving Nance O’Neil, are based in fact but edited down to meaninglessness. 

None of the blame should be laid at Ricci’s feet, as she does her level best to show Borden as a manipulative, wounded, but ultimately cold-hearted snake who is infinitely watchable but never camp. But even a smart performance like hers isn’t enough. 

The decision to show the crime through flashbacks gives us just enough gore to make it all feel a bit like we’re watching an episode of “Criminal Minds,” and the lush settings and period dress (contrasted with a pretty excellent soundtrack) suggests what great, gory fun this period pic could have been. But the lack of focus, and a protagonist who seemingly can’t decide which movie she’s in, makes this Lifetime movie a slick but unsatisfying swing and a miss.

Do you plan to watch “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax”?