Thinking back on all the movies I’ve seen, I don’t remember another film made by professional filmmakers this poorly put together. It plays like the entire cast and crew had never seen a movie before and were just making this shit up as they went along. And as I said, these are professional filmmakers. This ain’t a “Manos” — The Hands of Fate type situation, where the writer-director-producer-star was a fertilizer salesman by trade — these guys are supposed to actually know what they’re doing. The guy who wrote and directed Neon Bible, Terrence Davies, has been writing and directing for film and television since the 70s. Denis Leary was just a few years removed from his breakout role in The Ref. Diana Scarwid starred in Mommie Dearest with Faye Dunaway and has been acting since the 70s. Gena Rowlands has been acting for fifty goddamn years. And yet this movie looks like it was directed by a six-year-old deaf-mute and there’s not a decent performance in it.
I’m not expecting brilliance, just competence. You don’t expect every Major League ballplayer to hit .300, but you do assume they’ll know which end of the bat to swing and which hand the glove goes on. The poor dopes involved in Neon Bible don’t even know what game they’re supposed to be playing.
There are several stretches in the film where absolutely nothing happens. Not quiet moments, not moments of contemplation or profound silence. Nothing happens. The first instance is an interminably long sequence that takes us from the streets of the small southern town in which the film is set to inside a tent where a revival meeting is being held. The transition is an interminable tracking shot that first pushes through the dark tunnel leading inside the tent, then pulls out of the tunnel from the opposite side to slowly — slooooooooooooowly — reveal the entire audience in the tent. It takes five minutes to get from outside the tent to inside the tent — and here’s the best part! — once we finally get there, nothing fucking happens! We meet a typically smarmy, phony evangelist who exhorts the people to confess and repent their sins with a lame-ass “Come to Je-sus!” spiel that makes most of the assholes on TBN seem thoughtful and appealing by comparison. A few townsfolk stand up to give stilted, wooden testimonials, the protagonist’s crazy mother starts to cry, and that’s it. We get another endless push out of the tent, we never see the evangelist again, and nothing that happened at the revival meeting is ever mentioned during the rest of the film. The entire sequence is a tedious waste of time. But wait — there’s more!
Some of the worst scenes in the film are the ones where you can easily imagine something happening instead of nothing. About halfway through we get this bizarre, confusing (and looooooooooong) shot as the camera pushes into the protagonist’s house and down a hallway, and we hear pieces of conversation in voiceover. Like the revival sequence, this takes fucking forever and goes absolutely nowhere. Why Davies thought this was better than simply showing us the characters who were talking is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he realized he couldn’t count on his actors to do much better on-screen, so he figured “what the fuck?” Diana Scarwid in particular seems to forget about the needs of the film (and the requirements of good acting) and just wander off doing her own thing. Like this scene early on, with Denis Leary affecting a horrible southern accent as her husband:
SARAH (Scarwid): What’s this?
FRANK (Leary): It’s seed, Sarah. To grow things. I’m gonna grow things on that hill outside.
SARAH (instantly trembling with rage): Frank, you got a son to feeeeeed! You take that seed back to the store and get your money back right now, do you hear me? You know nothin’ll grow on that hill out there! We need food! You got a son to feeeeeeeed!
She won’t get off his back about the seeds. He finally just hauls off and punches her in the face, and I, for one, can’t blame him. Frank goes off to fight in World War II and gets killed in Italy, though the movie never actually tells us that, just lets us reason it out for ourselves when Frank ships off to war and never comes back and is hardly even mentioned for the rest of the film.
The bad acting isn’t helped by the movie’s complete lack of timing. Scenes drone on and on and on; even individual shots are held too long, or cut too abruptly, resulting in conversations between characters that play like scenes from an over-rehearsed high school play. Even with all its other problems, this film could have been immeasurably improved, maybe even rendered watchable, by an editor with the slightest amount of skill.
The novel was written by John Kennedy Toole when he was only 16; the film seems to have been made by John Kennedy Toole when he was a 37-year-old dead rotting corpse. If that were really the case, I’d say it was a decent first effort for a post-mortem filmmaker. For anyone else, especially someone who makes their living making movies, it’s an inexcusable mess of miscues and melodrama. Now that you’ve been warned, go on and rent it. If you know what’s coming, you’ll be able to wisecrack your way through and you’ll be fine. You’ll feel like a big fucking man when it’s over, trust me.