Terence Davies has left his native Liverpool far behind but has retained the themes and style of his two fine British films, Distant Voices Still Lives and The Long Day Closes in The Neon Bible, a beautifully crafted but thin and self-conscious tale about a dysfunctional family living in rural Georgia in the 1940s.
The film opens promisingly with Mick Coulter’s elegant Scope camera moving in on 15-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) as he travels by train away from the valley where he’s lived all his life. Flashbacks return to five years earlier, when Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands) came to live with David’s parents, the dirt-poor Frank (Denis Leary) and Sarah (Diana Scarwid). A former small-time showgirl well past her prime, Mae fascinates the boy and becomes his constant companion, to the strong disapproval of his volatile father.
Frank enlists when war breaks out, and never returns, driving Sarah to the edge of insanity. The teenage David finishes school and gets a job in a general store; a brief courtship of a pretty girl leads, frustratingly, to nothing; and when Mae is offered a singing job in Nashville and decides to move away, David is left to care for his suicidal mother.
For about the first half hour, Davies and his superb creative team weave a potent spell. The gliding camera, the use of popular songs of the era, the backwater community that evokes the town in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, the disarming performances and the elegant direction all combine to exert a distinctive magic. But, starting with a poorly staged revival meeting sequence, things start to go wrong; Davies’ grip slackens, and the artifice overwhelms the perilously slim storyline.