Scenery is everything in "Snow Falling on Cedars," a gorgeously photographed but turgid screen adaptation of the David Guterson best seller about love, death and the impact of racism on a Pacific Northwest fishing village. Scott Hicks, the director of 1996's "Shine," and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, an Oliver Stone regular, have assembled a high-toned, elegant-looking film packed with beautifully composed images, each suitable for framing.
The opening sequence is shrouded in fog that's thick enough to slice and dense enough to obscure even the darkest secrets. A lantern glows orange in the distance, a horn blows, two boats suddenly meet and their lone occupants size up each other. Come morning, the bloated corpse of a well-liked local fisherman is found tangled up in a net, and recently returned World War II hero Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) has been charged with murder.
Hicks' drama, built on a screenplay he co-wrote with Ron Bass, is a self-serious, often ponderous piece of work that gains its greatest strength from an examination of the injustices faced by Japanese-Americans in the years following Pearl Harbor. In scenes that draw direct parallels with the plight of European Jews, families are harshly questioned, stripped of their belongings, given tags around their necks and loaded into trucks bound for internment camps.
The filmmakers even insert a piece of real history into this work of fiction: a clip of a woman skating alone, shot at a camp in Utah, borrowed from the National Family Registry.
"Snow Falling on Cedars" boasts the kinds of narrative elements that typically add up to an intriguing thriller. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), the one-man editor of the local newspaper covering the murder trial, had once been involved in a forbidden interracial romance with Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), the wife of the accused man. The reporter, still obsessed with his old flame, is tortured by the blatant prejudice erupting in the wake of the case and wants to honor the legacy of his late father (Sam Shepard), the muckraking former owner of the San Piedro Review.
Complicating matters, Kazuo had a long-running conflict over land ownership with the dead man's family. Aging, wheezing defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson, as brought to (larger than) life by a masterful Max von Sydow, is making what may be his last stand in the courtroom. He's imposing, crafty and wise, but a little bit of amateur sleuthing provides an 11th-hour unraveling of the mystery.
So why isn't "Snow Falling" more moving? Blame the glacial pacing, for one thing; the momentum is constantly impeded by visual experimentation. Hicks utilizes flashbacks, cross-cutting, montages and overlapping dialogue to lead us into the heart of a rainforest, where the teen-age lovers once met inside the hollowed-out trunk of a giant cedar tree. Shots of the two embracing are alternated with haphazardly placed footage of the couple running on the beach and close-ups of flopping fish, glistening raindrops and sunlight-dappled leaves. Call it impressionism run amok.
Hawke, in an underwritten role, comes off as practically frozen as Chambers, a picture of pained introspection, brooding over lost love and a war wound, struggling to come to terms with his father's legacy. All reflection and no action, he waits for nearly the entire length of the picture to thaw out. By then, the story has been crushed by the omnipresent snow and fog and the twisting rhythms of Hicks' storytelling. Guterson's carefully constructed tale never stood a chance.