While on a train, a teenage boy thinks about his life and the flamboyant aunt whose friendship acted as an emotional shield from his troubled family. This film evokes the haunting quality of memory while creating a heartfelt portrait of a boy’s life in a rural 1940s Southern town.
Excerpts from Jonoathan Rosenbaum’s review from the Chicago Reader:
Davies, an Englishman born in 1945, shot for the first time in ‘Scope, in a country and culture different from his own, and his film is a faithful adaptation of someone else’s material, set in a period that precedes Davies’s autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes and starring Gena Rowlands, an actress whose methods have little in common with those of anyone he’s ever worked with before. And what did the American press complain about? That The Neon Bible was a carbon copy of Davies’s two previous films…
Being two years older than Davies and having grown up only a state away from Georgia, where the movie is set and was filmed, I feel reasonably qualified to comment on the overall accuracy of Davies’s details of place and period: it’s astonishing in how many ways he gets them right. Clearly the man did his homework, though his achievement may have as much to do with taste as it does with research, because the details themselves sometimes count for less than the kind of boxes in which they’re placed–the subjective memory enclosing them. Davies’s use of ‘Scope places a frame of 50s expansiveness–a memory of mid-50s CinemaScope that Davies and I happen to share–around the late 30s and 40s details that makes them a good deal more exciting, because they become memories within memories: the late 30s and 40s as they might have been remembered by someone during the 50s.
The story, such as it is, is recounted in flashbacks by the 16-year-old narrator-hero, David, as he sits alone in a train compartment at night, looking out the window at the dark countryside; it has to do with the deterioration of his father, Frank (Denis Leary), after he loses his factory job (he becomes a wife beater), and then of his mother, Sarah (Diana Scarwid), after Frank goes overseas to fight in Italy and is killed in action (she gradually goes mad). The other family member, David’s favorite, is Aunt Mae (Rowlands), a former nightclub singer who moves in when she has nowhere else to go, though Frank thoroughly disapproves of her. David is closer to the two women than he is to Frank, which evokes the psychosexual atmosphere of Davies’s two previous features…