January 24, 2014

Christina Ricci kills it in ‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax’

Convincing production design and wardrobe keep our eyes in 1892, but Ricci, wrapped in prim Victorian gray from neck to toes, strolls home from church to the sound of the Black Keys’ “Psychotic Girl,” one of the inspired musical choices that underline the script’s modern sensibilities.

Campy, sordid crime is Lifetime’s friend.

The cable network, which used to offer marathons of “Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear,” “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” and “She Woke Up Pregnant,” is upping the ante on its feature-length offerings, with more Hollywood actors signing up for some melodrama.

Last weekend, “Flowers in the Attic” drew more than 6 million viewers, despite being yucky and boring. For 40-ish women who once read the book with a flashlight, Ellen Burstyn’s hardcore-evil take on Granny was worth it.

This weekend belongs to Christina Ricci — peeved, pale and back in a corset. “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax” isn’t rewriting history or floating new theories. Sometimes slasher flick, sometimes courtroom drama, this “Lizzie” is a cynically dark, shamefully fun account of an all-American crime, its only suspect freed by a jury but condemned by history.

Convincing production design and wardrobe keep our eyes in 1892, but Ricci, wrapped in prim Victorian gray from neck to toes, strolls home from church to the sound of the Black Keys’ “Psychotic Girl,” one of the inspired musical choices that underline the script’s modern sensibilities.

The real Lizzie Borden lived a splintered life as a master manipulator, Sunday school teacher, shoplifter, animal lover, compulsive liar, virgin spinster, seductress. Ricci conjures all of them effortlessly.

If you lived with Andrew Borden — a cheap, controlling, judgmental sexist — you might sneak around a bit in search of thrills yourself. Most households at the time had phones, electricity, indoor plumbing. Not the Borden home.

Andrew is the kind of Daddy Dearest who stubbornly serves his family the last bits of rotten lamb. It’s not just that he doesn’t want to pony up for Lizzie’s new party dress. Any party is forbidden.

So Lizzie acts out. Twenty dollars from her stingy stepmother’s purse. A silver hand mirror from the dress shop. The “deny, deny, deny” strategy that would continue to serve her well.

Events never “spiral out of control” in this tale. Whatever Lizzie does — mostly hidden until the final scenes — she does it coolly and coldly. Gazing down at her father’s body, she takes a deep breath and delivers her best Jamie Lee Curtis scream.

“Father is dead,” she tells the maid. “Someone came in and killed him!”

Eventually, Abby Borden’s body turns up, too, and the questions begin: “Where were you all day? Did your father have enemies? What’s that stain on your dress?”

Later, at the police station: “Miss Borden, did you love your mother?”

Lizzie snaps. “She is


my mother!”

That’s only the first of the verbal lapses leading up to her murder trial. Her sister Emma (an excellent Clea Duvall), comforts and supports her, even when a morphine-dazed Lizzie chillingly muses, “Emma, do you think there really was blood on my dress?” Emma starts locking her door at night.

When Lizzie’s attorney, Andrew Jennings (Billy Campbell), shows her the newspaper with the story of her arrest, she sighs, “I hate this photograph of me.”

At trial, the prosecutor calls her “a feral thing” and asks, “What kind of a dark heart resides in that soul?”

Emma, a figure overlooked by most Borden narratives, finds herself asking herself the same question, even after her sister’s acquittal. After a raucous New Year’s party, she warns Lizzie that her new friends are using her as a gruesome prop, a curiosity. “They think you got away with murder.”

Calmly sipping her tea, Lizzie asks: “What do you think? Do you want to know?”

It turns out, Emma doesn’t. But we sure do.

Hard rock and horse-drawn carriages

Stephen Kay’s script for “Lizzie Borden Took An Ax” called for modern rock from day one.

“Usually, we make more decisions in post-production,” executive producer Judith Verno told The Star this week. “This was designed to incorporate a musical palette from the beginning.”

Director Nick Gomez received some tracks for inspiration before filming began. A Black Keys song set the sonic stage.

“Psychotic Girl,” from 2008’s “Attack Release,” wasn’t a Black Keys radio hit, but it still ended up the most expensive tune in “Lizzie Borden.” And getting permission to use it from Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach wasn’t a simple task.

“They’re a band that’s very particular about what they choose to license,” said Tony Scudellari, the movie’s music supervisor. So he showed the band a cut of how the song would be used, and they went for it. “That was a really gratifying experience.”

With “Psychotic Girl” as a jumping-off point, Scudellari and Verno began to look for songs that matched the feel of the high-dollar proposals in the original script. They went through hundreds of options for each scene.

When Lizzie defies her father to attend a party alone, Sons of Jezebel’s raucous “Whoo Boy” escorts her down the street and seamlessly melds into a backdrop for the chatter after she arrives.

“That was one of our more out-of-the-box decisions,” Verno said. “We just needed to put that girlish, party, sneaking-out-of-the-house vibe to her.”

Scudellari said he relished the chance to introduce some lesser-known acts, such as Australian band Lady of the Sunshine, whose “White Rose Parade” appears as Lizzie steps out from the dark courtroom into the sunlight.

Using modern tunes in a period flick is hardly unprecedented. Baz Luhrmann is addicted to it, beaming Beyonce back to the Jazz Age and “Like a Virgin” to Bohemian-era Paris. “Django Unchained” sent John Legend to the antebellum South.

More successfully, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” let Kirsten Dunst lounge to New Order and the Cure. “Lizzie” channels “Marie,” but she’s more gritty garage than new wave.

‘Lizzie Borden’ playlist

• The Black Keys, “Psychotic Girl”

• Ian Clement, “The Hammer the Nail”

• Sons of Jezebel, “Whoo Boy”

• Kreeps, “Pennsylvania Boarded House Blues”

• Paul Otten, “Dangerous Mind” *

• The Harpoonist the Axe Murderer, “Are You Listening Lord,” “Shake It”

• Pow Wow, “All In” *

• Lady of the Sunshine, “White Rose Parade”

• Cavendish Music Library, “Razzamatazz Man” *

*Currently not commercially available

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