The Neon Bible is now available on All 4 in the United Kingdom.
Terence Davies’ third feature film, The Neon Bible, takes a step away from his UK-based works by telling the story of a young boy growing up in the rural South of the USA during the 1940s. However, while the film is based on John Kennedy Toole’s novel, the topical similarities with Davies’ previous works are indisputable and clear throughout.
The Neon Bible opens with adolescent David (Jacob Tierney) sitting in a train carriage, emotionless. We then jump back a few years as we enter David’s thoughts. We learn that David lived with his emotionally fragile mother, Sarah (Diana Scarwid) and an abusive and absent father, Frank (Denis Leary). David spent most of his time with his mother’s sister, Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands). As we delve deeper, it’s clear that David adored his aunt, who treated him as an equal – not just an annoying little kid, which is how he felt around his parents. However, David failed to see the real Mae, who was, in reality, a burned-out nightclub singer struggling with her relationships under a facade of optimism.
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Mae is truly the heart and soul of The Neon Bible, not only due to her larger-than-life and eccentric persona among the conservative townspeople surrounding her but also due to Gena Rowlands’ brilliant and lively performance. However, it is within its visual and narrative style that The Neon Bible comes to life. Much like his dream-like reflections of childhood memories in The Long Day Closes, the coming-of-age themes present in The Neon Bible feel timeless and universal as they float in the air surrounding each character. Here David is unsure of himself and unable to initiate friendships or relationships due to his nerves. This makes his relationship with Aunt Mae even more important to his sense of belonging and safety as they both sit outside of the local culture and community norms.
Davies plays with the fundamentalist Christian community beliefs surrounding both Mae and David yet falls short of making any comments on religion itself. This is, of course, a trait found in much of Davies’ work due to his own complex thoughts on faith and belief and the interaction with identity, sexuality and community belonging. The Neon Bible represents endings and beginnings as both David and Mae leave their home behind, yet as with many of his films, this is a mere snapshot with no clear answers or direction of travel. It’s a reminiscence of a point in time that is both nostalgic and harrowing.
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There is a duality of happiness and pain as we join David’s memories. Here Davies’ trademark cinematography, set design, and music wrap us in a theatrical dream of opposites. For example, while David’s memories paint a picture of a rural landscape of freedom and beauty, the conservative community of his home is wrapped in racial bigotry and religious hypocrisy. Similarly, his carefree relationship with Mae is juxtaposed to his violent father and the care of his mentally ill mother. This is a boy who was forced to grow up fast, without ever enjoying his teenage years.
Much like his previous work, The Neon Bible is more emotionally impactful than plot-heavy; by the end, there is so much repressed pain and passion that it climaxes in catharsis. Life goes on, with everyone carrying their emotional baggage. Davies uses his opening image for his final shot, framing a story that feels frozen in time, much like its remote location. Here David’s emotionless, unreadable expression suggests he is both looking forward to leaving his childhood behind, yet nervous of the unknown world that awaits him.