By Stephanie Zacharek
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Of the readers who bought four million copies, in no fewer than thirty languages, of David Guterson's 1995 bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars, many have been looking forward to the movie version. Others have been dreading it. For better or worse, this multifarious story about nativist bigotry, forbidden love, sons measuring up to their fathers, immigrant pride, the pain of loss, poor marine navigation, coming of age, the demons of memory, bad weather on Puget Sound, legal ethics, personal redemption, the hazards of salmon fishing, social justice and just about anything else you can think of now has as its centerpiece the young heartthrob Ethan Hawke. It was directed by a popular romantic, Scott Hicks, who canonized the disturbed Australian pianist David Helfgott in Shine. The cinematographer is Robert Richardson, who drapes the proceedings in a relentless gauze of swirling snow and palpable regret. And the score comes courtesy of James Newton Howard, who never met 500 violinists he didn't like.
In other words, this is the kind of movie epic studio publicists call "multilayered" and "elegiac." And which moviegoers with their fraud detectors turned up might call "self-important" and "overblown."
Somewhere in this maze of poetic intentions and glazey-eyed dreaminess lies the germ of an idea -- the secret life of a small town with old hatreds festering in its heart. In 1954, on Washington state's fictional San Piedro Island, a young Japanese-American (Rick Yune) is put on trial for the murder of a local white fisherman, and the proceedings stir up memories, resentments and prejudices reaching back to Pearl Harbor and beyond. This is a subject Hollywood has now and then addressed, most notably in the Spencer Tracy classic Bad Day at Black Rock, which remains, 45 years after its release, a model of dramatic economy and emotional power.
If only Hicks and his profligate collaborators had taken a few lessons in restraint from Black Rockdirector John Sturges. Instead, this badly muddled adaptation of a complex novel chases after Guterson's many skeins and themes with no unifying principle in mind -- except for a kind of gooey reverie. What's important here? The impacted prejudices of flinty townsfolk who, nine years after the war's end, still want to lynch a "Jap"? The romantic trauma of a young newspaper reporter (Hawke) who was once deeply (and secretly) in love with the accused man's wife (Youki Kudoh)? The insecurities our hero must bear because his late father (Sam Shepard) was a crusading editor whose reputation the son cannot match? How about the the burden of history itself?
A more able group of filmmakers might have been able to sort and juggle these elements -- and more -- with skill. But stylistically, Cedars is a mess. Hicks stuffs flashbacks inside flashbacks and dices memories into other memories with such fiendish abandon that his time frames get as jangled as an acid trip. If you don't pay very, very close attention, you might get the impression that Japanese-Americans interned in 1942 are still being held in 1954. The movie's pace is plodding, but the bewildering Hicks, in cahoots with co-screenwriter Ron Bass, yanks us into and out of his courtroom with utter disregard for our equilibrium. Meanwhile, Richardson's camera never quite finds its way through the gloom. That the entire film looks underlit and murky is less a tribute to the radical who started it all in the mysterious atmosphere department, Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, than the symbolic expression of this movie's overall confusion. I still don't have a very good idea what Cedars's leading lady looks like, so often is she glimpsed in darkness and shadow. And if you're not all that familiar with Hawke, late of Gattacaand The Newton Boys, you still wouldn't be able to pick him out of a lineup after watching this. Such a dearth of candlepower has a few advantages, of course: Old hands like James Rebhorn, who plays the vicious prosecutor, and Max Von Sydow, who's the inspirational defense attorney, will probably be taking home stacks of flatteringly lit promotional stills.
Devotees of Guterson's novel are bound to have the same complaints readers always have when a complex and admirable book makes its way to the multiplex -- that the beauty and originality of its language have evaporated, that the profundity is gone, that once-rich characters now seem shallow and one-dimensional. All that happens again here, and what's worse, even Cedars's most important message, the one about humanity, integrity and decency going on trial in a small American town, is badly compromised. This epic seems more interested in the drama of its violin swells, in the dew falling from a trembling fern and in the riddles of its own structure than in the conscience of men or the qualities of justice. In the end, it's pretty, but empty.
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