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Case Number 27247: Small Claims Court

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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Sony // 2014 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 25th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan is now afraid of sharp objects.

The Charge

It's time to bury the hatchet.

The Case

The enduring allure of the case of Lizzie Borden is that it hasn't been, and likely won't be solved. It's still famous at least partially for the brutality of the crimes and the infamy of Ms. Borden (and her acquittal), but ultimately we still talk about this case because it doesn't make sense. Every suspect (including Borden herself) is preposterous for some reason, either due to the physical demands of forty axe blows or lack of apparent motive. I would argue that even if we found an authentic document of confession, from Borden or anyone else, the mystery of the case would still be there—it just doesn't seem possible that anyone could kill one person violently, wait over an hour, and kill a second, all in the same house with others. It's no surprise, then, that the Lizzie Borden case has inspired numerous retellings. To that list we can add Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, a TV version of the infamous murders.

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe sticks fairly close to the historical record from the point of view of Lizzie (Christina Ricci, Monster). She lives with her older sister (Clea DuVall, But I'm a Cheerleader) in the house owned by her father (Stephen McHattie, Pontypool) and stepmother (Sara Botsford, The Fog). Lizzie is spoiled by her doting father, and disliked by her stepmother (the feeling is mutual). One day Lizzie walks into the living room and finds her father murdered, when the police are summoned they discover the body of her stepmother as well, both felled with numerous blows of an ax. Suspicion immediately falls on Lizzie, and the rest of the film follows the investigation and trial.

There are two ways to go about making a movie about Lizzie Borden. The first is to stick to the facts and present what we know about the case. One imagines that prejudice (and police ineptitude) contributed to Lizzie's acquittal, but there are some fundamental facts we do have. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax strays a bit too far from these facts to be considered an accurate summary of the case. Two major deviations include a search of Lizzie for bloodstains (and none are found) when in fact there was not search of her, along with a big deal being made of her burning the dress she was wearing the day of the murders after it was requested as evidence, when in fact she burned a dress that may or may not have been the dress in question without it having been requested.

As the great Townes Van Zandt used to say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Given all we don't know about the Borden case, there's plenty of room to maneuver and tell many different stories. Everything from incestual abuse to lesbian affairs have been invoked to explain the Borden murders. The problem with Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is that it doesn't offer much in the way of a story.

It's a bit of a spoiler, but the vast majority of the film plays very coy with the viewer. Lizzie is a girl who loves to party almost as much as she loves her put-upon father. Maybe she has visions (flashbacks? fantasies?) of killing, but overall we just get a fairly straightforward presentation of the murders and the investigation/trial. Then the final moments suggest that yes, in fact, Lizzie Borden did kill her parents, and we get a bit of a flashback to show how she did it.

The problem is that this approach feels like a cheat, and is just boring. Because the film doesn't get other facts right, it's hard to credit the eventual explanation for Borden not being gore-soaked. Moreover, the film utterly fails to offer a creditable reason for Borden to murder her stepmother and father. The film tries to be a bit contemporary, throwing rock tunes on the soundtrack and making some weak parallels between Borden and current-day party girls, but overall the film does nothing to explain the forty savage blows that killed two people. No serious abuse. No real financial motivation (though it's hinted at). No jilted lovers. Nope, a creepy looking Cristina Ricci just up and decides one day to murder two people, lie about it until she's acquitted, then reveals it to her sister. Nonsense.

The DVD, at least, is pretty good. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer does a fine job with the period details, from the pattern on the infamous dress to the surprising amount of gore to be found in the murder scenes. Colors are appropriately saturated, and black levels stay consistent and deep. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track keeps dialogue audible and well-balanced with the use of music. Sadly there are no extras.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax might be a decent introduction for those who've never heard much about the Lizzie Borden case. For those who know much more about it, the film is dissatisfying both as a representation of history and as a potentially compelling explanation of the mystery surrounding the infamous ax murders. If you really love Christina Ricci, this disc is probably worth a rental.

The Verdict

Guilty of wasting its potential.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 78

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• English (SDH)
• French
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2014
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Drama
• Mystery
• Television
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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