Drama (US); 1999;
Rated PG-13; 126 Minutes
Ethan Hawke: Ishmael Chambers
James Cromwell: Judge Fielding
Richard Jenkins: Sheriff Art Moran
James Rebhorn: Alvin Hooks
Sam Shepard: Arthur Chambers
Produced by Ronald Bass, Carol Baum, David Guterson,
Kerry Heysen, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Lloyd A.
Silverman, Harry J. Ufland and Richard Vane; Directed
by Scott Hicks; Screenwritten by Ron Bass and
Scott Hicks; based on the novel by David Guterson
by DAVID KEYES
Hicks' visionary "Snow Falling On Cedars" employs one of
the most enticing styles of filmmaking that is, unfortunately,
rarely seen from our other great movie directors. The approach
is a standoff presentation, one that doesn't simply move
in a straightforward manner but refers to past memories
and flashbacks to garner its credible facts for the audience.
The possibilities, both visually and narratively, have almost
no limits--the glorious "Dolores Claiborne," for instance,
manages to tell two stories both in present day and in the
past tense, using only aging makeup and an ominous tone
to separate the two. Hicks, who directed the emotionally-drenched
"Shine," knows this style like the back of his hand, and
presents it here using visual beauty to back up the promising
premise. No story done in this manner, however, is always
easily absorbed (in all fairness, the importance of present
occurrences can get ignored for the past circumstances in
story begins (more accurately, continues) when a Japanese-American
is accused of murdering a white fisherman in the Pacific
Northwest. During the trial, which features a defense lawyer
played by an aged Max Von Sydow, a reporter taking notes
from up above keeps his eyes focused on the defendant's
wife, an attractive Japanese-American female whom, as we
learn through later circumstances, was once involved with
him. Through a series of lushly-photographed flashbacks,
we see the lovers in compromising passion, so obviously
devoted to each other that they look like soul mates. What
prevents them from continuing their romance? The pressures
of racism, and the pressure of World War II, doomed the
entire love affair. It is the script's obligation, understandably,
to refer to flashbacks to glitter some reality onto the
relationship, because all of this unfolds in the late 1940s/early
1950s, when interracial relationships were considered harsh
taboos and had to be seen to be believed.
man in question is named Ishmael Chambers, and is played
by Ethan Hawke; the woman, Hatsu, is played by Youki Kodoh.
There are other characters as well, some just as important,
others that are underwritten but occupy the screen with
enough charm to feel like they have significance in the
plot. Especially admirable is the performance from James
Cromwell as a judge, who looks stern and has very little
dialogue to compensate for his vague facial expressions,
but actually cares about the case he is involved in.
the courtroom itself, evidence is constantly being brought
forth both against and in support of he who stands trial.
It offers very little insight to the outcome of the defendant;
the screenplay, taken from the novel by David Guterson,
keeps his innocence a mystery to the audience until the
end (like most films about standing a trial). To keep things
smooth, in between the slower courtroom moments, the film
reaches back into the past to help shape the story between
Ishmael and the woman he adores. Eventually, though, the
romance angle begins to completely transcend what is happening
in the trial. This is really a love story in disguise of
a courtroom drama, but that's okay--at least for the first
half of the picture.
thick layering of the story itself has brought concern to
fans of the novel who anticipate seeing the movie--they
ask themselves the question: will the cinematic adjustment
keep the spirit of the story alive, or will it give in to
the countless Hollywood clichés that are usually seen in
such adaptations? I cannot judge the material on that level,
unfortunately, because I've never read the story. What is
seen, and therefore absorbed, is effective as is.
why am I giving the movie low marks? Because Hicks' interpretation
gets somewhat dispiriting and impersonal after we grow attached
to the flashbacks and bored with the present events--his
characters become weakened by the weight of the thick conflicts,
and the story gradually descends into aspects of the dull
and dreary. The length of the film doesn't help much, either;
we get over an hour of good, strong drama and visuals (not
all at once, of course), then an equal amount of cold, distanced
spirit that depresses more than it allures.
stands out on its own is the brilliant cinematography from
Robert Richardson, which, like the title says, captures
tall Cedars at the most glorious period of winter, when
snowflakes plummet to the Earth and cover the green with
peace and serenity. There is also a sense of tension in
the courtroom, as the camera moves around characters like
a reporter permitted to interrogate the case's victims.
like movies with flashbacks; I tend to dislike them, however,
when the past overshadows what is actually going on in the
present. "Snow Falling On Cedars" does this; the romantic
interludes have much more stability than the courtroom drama
and tend to distract from its overall significance. This
doesn't mean, however, that the present-day events never
get off the ground; in fact, for the first half, the story
manages to pique our interest for both the past and present.
In the end, though, here is a movie that does not quite
live up to the potential that so many had foreseen. Kudos
to the photography and the characters; hisses to the complex
but lackluster story.
David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.