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Movie Reviews

The Neon Bible  

Say what you will about the recent glut of Hollywood teen movies, from Never Been Kissed to She`s All That to Ten Things I Hate About You, etc. etc. Cliches are certainly abundant; unabashedly so. The senior prom seems to be a very common event in all of them, I think. But at least these films release a good cheer from their audience. Nobody walks out of the theatre depressed (except maybe those wanting an original story.....). Everybody feels good, as the studios were hoping for. These desired after-effects will become more desired, possibly, if any of those teens were to watch this small independent film The Neon Bible. Those teens will not be happy, that`s if they actually watch the entire thing.

This movie is a slow, pretentious, far from complete piece of work. Dialogue is sparse. The direction is leisurely to the point of passivity. And the main character, a 15-year old boy, is so timid and reflective, a cranky viewer may wish to give him a few slaps in the face just to wake him up.

But this film is also filled with fabulous imagery and a couple of fine scenes. It also possesses a animated performance by Gena Rowlands, veteran of many a John Cassevetes film, as a liberated, free-spirited woman who due to lack of funds moves in with her working-class reletives: her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.

And that`s the thing about The Neon Bible. It is intriging because it contains both virtues and flaws, possibly in equal measure. This is really not a great film, and possibly doesn`t deserve the three stars I`m giving it. But I`m of the belief that almost any film that tries something different and unique, and doesn`t get sloppy, deserves credit for at least trying. And this film certainly tries.

This isn`t so much a production which contains a story, but rather with a feeling of memory. The film takes place in the 1940`s, in the South, where Bible-thumpers and KKK groups are common in this little country town, and the young boy at the centre of the movie finds himself alienated from the prevailing, masculine culture. This realization of what is acceptable influence and what is not appears at the very first, when the boy`s mother chastises the aunt for her style of dress, which from my view really only suffers from having actual taste and elegance. As well, the boy`s father (played by Denis Leary, of all people!!!) proclaims the aunt is an unhealthy influence, and hauls him out to play with the neighbourhood boys, a plan which does not go over too well.

The aunt is a dreamer, who someday hopes to sing in Nashville. She also enjoys the company of men, an attribute which would raise no eyebrows today, but apparently is a bit of a shock to the uptight, redneck ideals of this southern town, where women are "supposed" to know their place. And Leary`s character is a good example of that authoritative stance, as he himself beats his wife around. The son, however, finds solace in the company of women, especially his mother and aunt. We truly understand his nature when later on in the film, a tragedy occurs, and the mother slowly but surely goes insane. The boy is willing to sacrifice anything, including his job, to make sure she gets proper care.

I said at first that I`m not sure whether this film deserves three stars. I perhaps should have said that this is an acquired taste. For those who like a strong, linear plot, this would be seen as a failure. I myself think a lot of threads in the script went almost nowhere. The movie obviously wants us to understand the repellently macho, religious culture of the 1940`s South. But it doesn`t go very far into that to really make me happy. Also, with the exception of Rowlands, none of the actors are able to make much of an impact. Like I said earlier, the boy is so timid and restrained. This may be the fault of the direction, which is so contemplative, and in love with its own style, that is deadens the pace. Denis Leary does a pretty decent job with his character, but has very few scenes to really strut his stuff. And the ending may trouble some viewers, offering a shocking act without any of the moral consequences needed.

But I cannot put this film down because there are some great moments of direction and scene. I have to be fair. For example, a scene I just loved is the one with the Bible-thumper. He is clearly a con-man, hoping to get lots of money from gullible, uneducated Southerners, and certainly not as charming as the Bible-selling con-man played by Ryan O`Neal in Paper Moon. In the best fundamentalist style, he throws fire and brimstone at the women of today. He starts off by saying that many women are influenced by the devil and are joining "the oldest profession". But he sees the general concept of women`s autonomy as being a prostitution of the worst kind. Those poor women, with "no restraining hand", go out to the dance halls, to clubs, etc. (I know, that jitterbug was pretty nasty stuff!!!!!! The evil!!!!) It`s one howler of a scene, but, having a cynical view of religion to begin with, is something I take great pleasure in viewing. It only cements for me the feeling that much of what passes off as religion is a combination of con-men, fools, and the vanity of so-called "Christian" people.

There are also some great little moments of editing and imagery which will stick in the memory, even if the story itself is a little problematic. I liked a sad moment when the little kid asks if her mother will die, after having been hit by Leary, and then, after a transition from that age to 15, a repetition of that scene, with the boy both older and more disillusioned. It`s possibly a much more convincing, if quieter, depiction of the mindless, repetitive nature of abuse than other such depictions. There is also a shot in the context of the ending of World War II. The boy, as narrator, says that the soldiers have finally come home, and his words are accompanied by a shot of caskets cloaked in the American Flag. There is also a great sequence involving the boy`s initiations into the messy world of sex and relationships; its strength lying in its non-linear structure.

In fact, there are a lot of good things about the movie that the weaker things can be forgiven. This is the kind of movie people who enjoy the visual poetry of film might be pleased by. Those who only demand plot, however, may want to skip it.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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