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Snow Falling on Cedars

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Snow Falling on Cedars

Starring: Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell
Director: Scott Hicks
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Richard Jenkins, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard, Zeljko Ivanek, Eric Thal, Max von Sydow, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune

Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a silent movie. Well, not exactly, but director Scott Hicks (SHINE) does rely chiefly on tableaux to tell the story, which is based on David Guterson's well-respected novel.

This isn't quite as hopeless as it might seem, since Robert Richardson's breathtaking cinematography of the Pacific Northwest during the snowiest winter in decades is nothing short of astounding. Couple this with gorgeous settings and richly evocative music, and you've got a movie that's a real treat for the eyes and the ears. Your mind, however, will not be equally engaged.

Cutting back and forth in time and locale, Hicks only confuses the viewers. One time we witness 10-year-olds having sex only to realize that Hicks has tricked us again. The people inside the dimly lit cedar tree are now closer to the age of consent than 10. Another time, we witness hand-to-hand combat on American shores only to find that it's Germany instead. If these visual slights of hand served some purpose it might be different, but they don't.

At the center of the story is a fascinating trial. Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a Japanese-American who fought just a half-decade earlier in the trenches of World War II, is on trial for the murder of a local fisherman, who died recently under what appear to be mysterious circumstances. Since Kazuo was the last person at the crime scene, he is accused of the murder. In a xenophobic town in which European-Americans distrust Japanese-Americans, and vice-versa, Kazuo is immediately assumed guilty by most of those not of Japanese ancestry.

One man who does eventually come to Kazuo's aid is the local newspaperman, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), since he and Kazuo's wife, Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), were long-time childhood sweethearts. Hawke (BEFORE SUNRISE), who is an accomplished actor, isn't able to do anything with his part in this picture because of the restrictions placed upon him by the director. Hicks strategically places Ishmael in each scene and then has him look as stoic as possible while saying absolutely nothing. Stone statues have more warmth.

Although the trial sequences are mesmerizing, Hicks uses them only as a glue to hold the rest of the story together. The script by Hicks and Ronald Bass devotes most of the movie to the long background material on the years before the trial. As we spend long minutes observing native flora, the movie takes on the same remote and dispassionate feel found in THE THIN RED LINE. Whenever the trial starts to build a little momentum, Hicks cuts back to the past so that young Ishmael and Hatsue can stroll along the beach some more.

The star of the trial is the wise, but aging, defense attorney, Nels Gudmundsson played with panache by Max von Sydow. Nels's hands shake, he has trouble remembering his questions, but he puts his heart and soul into the case. Whether it will be enough to save his client is, nonetheless, questionable.

Paced faster and with much of the extraneous material pruned back, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS could have been an outstanding motion picture instead of merely a handsome one. Posturing as an art form works for painters, but the technique isn't suitable for an action medium. Hicks should have given Hawke some meaningful lines and let him out of his straightjacket. Together they could have fashioned something wonderful.

SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS runs a long 2:06. It is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, sensuality and brief strong language and would be fine for teenagers.

Copyright 2000 Steve Rhodes

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