Snow Falling on Cedars
cedars swaying against an icy sky. Landscapes swallowed in white. Figures
welling up from dense fog. Dead men, their faces and limbs protruding from the
sandy beach where they've been washed ashore. Snow Falling on Cedars, the
contemplative film that Scott Hicks, the director of Shine, has made from
the popular David Guterson novel, comes closest to being the most
black-and-white color movie in years, alternating from driftwood grays to the
dark, dark browns of oil lantern smoke.
images (photographed by Robert Richardson, who worked on several of Oliver
Stone's films) are often gorgeous, though, and some of the acting is superb.
Among the noteworthy: Richard
Jenkins' tentative portrayal of a sheriff who lacks a sense of authority, trying
to keep the peace while not making a disturbance or creating a mess. James
Cromwell, as a courtroom judge, who makes himself known using very few words yet
turns out to be immensely compassionate and sensible. Max von Sydow as a defense
attorney, his face tired beyond comprehension, the skin sagging, puffy yet also
looking like damp tissue paper that would disintegrate with one touch, yet still
able to marshall his resources one more time since, being old and frail, he has
become more intimate with matters involving death.
has chosen -- rather daringly, for a commercial film -- to make a film that is
both a puzzle picture and a memory piece, with the characters' recollections
weaving in and out of the narrative as the camera settles on each of them in
turn. Only gradually do we learn all the story details. We know we are in a
courtroom, at the trial of a Japanese-American (Rick Yune) accused of murdering
a local fisherman, and that the action is set in the Forties, sometime after the
bombing of Pearl Harbor. From the courtroom balcony, a young journalist (Ethan
Hawke) takes notes on the proceedings while exchanging looks with the accused
man's wife (Youki Kudoh, who, with her great, dark glassy eyes, stares right
back at him, quivering). The journalist also comes across some evidence that
could prove crucial to the trial, but he hesitates in bringing it forward. Why?
We know that these two were in love with each other, and that circumstances tore
them apart, but there seems to be something more of a reason than just simple
jealousy. The truth is, eventually, revealed at the end of a rather stunning --
and actually rather crafty -- montage sequence that occurs about an hour and a
half into the film.
there is a long, wordless sequence showing the rounding-up and relocation of the
community's Japanese-American citizens to the Manzanar interment camp in
California, Hicks appears more interested in the romantic conflicts in the story
than in the racial situations that are actually at the heart of it. We never
find out with any certainty whether the citizens who were forcefully removed,
and who then returned to the town, are ever accepted back into the community to
any degree. In any event, it doesn't change our reactions to the characters. The
filmmakers have worked hard to make every frame of the film count for something,
to add some new detail or some new layer of meaning to what has gone before, but
there's a suspended, dangling feeling to the proceedings, and the film never
really establishes a point-of-view. The picture as a whole feels slightly
removed -- beautiful, muffled, but distant.
Hawke has never seemed like an actor who wanted to bare his soul to the
audience. He has a broad-shouldered, more mature presence, here, than in
previous films, and his sleek, handsome features are ruffled in a studious
fashion by emotional undercurrents. But there is one moment, at a crucial point
in the story, where his character suddenly expresses himself with such precise
vehemence that it makes you wince. It's enough to make you think that Ethan
Hawke just might make the transition into becoming an adult actor -- yet.