The Neon Bible (Terence Davies)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Terence Davies is something of an acquired taste. I thought his first feature, Distant Voices/Still Lives, one of the most tedious movies I'd ever seen; when I finally got around to seeing The Long Day Closes, his second feature, many years later, I was entranced, despite the fact that it really isn't any kind of significant departure from the one I'd loathed. I think that if I'd seen then in the opposite order, my opinion of them would similarly have reversed, because the key to my appreciation the second time around was the knowledge that nothing much is going to happen in a Davies least, nothing in the way of narrative. The Neon Bible, by comparison, is positively fraught with incident -- there's even a murder, by god -- but it's shot in the usual Davies fashion, concerned less with 'what happens next' than with the juxtaposition of sound and image, and the dynamics of motion. A Davies film can almost be plotted, like a map; the camera, rather than any linear notion of time, propels the viewer forward, or backward, or to the left or right, up, down, and so forth. Davies' films are almost entirely about mood, and if you forget about plot and simply allow yourself to be transported, you're in for a hell of a ride (albeit a slow, leisurely ride -- when the film was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1995, Davies remarked that he'd have loved to have directed Speed, "but if I did Speed it'd just be one car moving very slowly, and then eventually it'd leave frame and you'd just be looking at a field or something"). In fact -- and here's something I complain about very infrequently -- this adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's precocious novel really has too much plot to be truly satisfying; there are moments of such narrative import that they effectively break the spell Davies has created. There are also moments in which Davies tries to push the spell too far, such as one in which Diana Scarwid sings "Tura-lura-lura" (I'm sure I just mangled the spelling -- somebody mail me the real one) for approximately sixteen years. On the other hand, Gena Rowlands is in it, so what're you waiting for?