Coming of Age Confusion
Based upon John Kennedy Toole's novel of the same name, writer and director Terence Davies stated in an interview with Time Out Film that "The Neon Bible" doesn't work and it is his own fault. Now I have to agree because this is a movie which struggles right from the off with a beautiful but seriously drawn out opening which sees a young boy on a train. The words beautiful and drawn out is the only way to describe this coming of age movie because the actual story gets lost in some absolutely gorgeous looking shots which get drawn out to the point you want to shake the camera man. In fact I would hazard a guess that if the script had been shot by a director who doesn't over indulge in painstakingly slow camera pans it would have lasted 45 minutes tops. But rather ironically when you give up watching "The Neon Bible" for any story and just marvel in the crafted scenes it becomes surprisingly captivating.
So what actually happens in "The Neon Bible", it's a good question? Whilst the movie starts of with a young teenager on a train as it slowly pulls away from a station the story takes us back a few years to the teenager, David, as a young boy just after Aunt Mae comes to stay. What follows is a series of events in David's life from his close friendship with Mae to his father turning violent as times turn desperate before going off to war in Italy. We also get to see David go on his first date whilst also deal with boys who pick on him but more significantly we witness the slow nervous collapse of his mother as she is unable to cope.
Now in a way that makes "The Neon Bible" not that untypical, a sort of memoir of a writer recanting various events from his childhood which also include racism and religion. But that story ends up getting lost in director Terence Davies' styling, his adoration of the slow camera pan, the shadowy framed image where the background is etched with detail. I could go on because "The Neon Bible" becomes a movie all about the look and whilst initially that look is hampered by the painstaking slowness it surprisingly becomes captivating. You end up ignoring the story or the slow camera work and just marvel at each set up, the use of smoke, steam and darkness to create an exquisite look.
The sense of visual style is not the only thing which demands you to accept because there are other elements which seem completely wrong. In an early scene David's parents are arguing, the delivery from actors Diana Scarwid and Denis Leary sounds false as if we have two actors trying to do old Southern accents as if they were in a stage play, in fact the way the scene progresses it feels like an act on stage. But then this isn't by accident there is a homage to "Gone With the Wind" thrown in to this strange artsy mix which you don't know whether is an act of genius or folly. And on that subject of genius or folly there is the dark, strange yet intriguing ending which I still don't know whether I like or not.
In the midst of what borders on being cinematic art we have some entertaining performances, Diana Scarwid's slow spiral into insanity is unsettling yet beautiful as is the strange detachment which Jacob Tierney delivers as teenage David. But in a way it is Gena Rowland as Aunt Mae who grabs are attention because we have Rowlands playing something akin to a bit of a good time girl yet one with incredible dignity. It is as polar as the movie, wrong but yet so right.
What this all boils down to is that "The Neon Bible" doesn't work, the storyline becomes lost in a deluge of style which initially has the ability to have you reaching for the off button. But it is a movie which if you give up looking for story and just sit back and take in the craftsmanship of every single scene you will become strangely captivated.