Snow Falling on Cedars
I was the last on my block to pick up the novel "Snow Falling on Cedars;" in fact by this past Christmas I hadn't read it, so a thoughtful friend gave it to me as a gift. Now she will be angry and disappointed because I would die the death of a thousand cuts rather than read the novel, having seen what author David Guterson describes happily as the faithful film version.
The time is 1950, the place the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, the action a trial for murder in which a young Japanese-American fisherman is accused of murdering a white fellow-fisherman and friend. Naturally, this being America, most of the white townspeople hate all Japanese, and their bigotry is shown in many ways, including flashbacks to Manzanar, the concentration camp they were sent to in the war. We're also given flashbacks in which two island children, one Japanese, who will grow up to be the fisherman's wife, and the other who will grow up to be Ethan Hawke, play, touch, and ultimately do you-know-what.
Although she gets over it and grows up, Ethan -- call him Ishmael -- does not, though having to carry around that name at least gives him an excuse if not a motivation; and so all these many years later, now a reporter and evidently the owner of the paper his crusading father started, he manages to sit through the trial withholding exculpatory evidence that had he given it would have ended the film two hours earlier. I cannot forgive him for that. We can be grateful, however, for the fact that he speaks barely two lines in the whole film. Next to him, Silent Bob is a chatterbox.
Director Scott Hicks, working with screenwriter Ron Bass, seems to have treated the story with a respect bordering on reverence. The pace is that of, how to put this nicely, snow falling gently on cedars. Where the key to Ethan's withholding the evidence is that during the war he lost his arm to a Japanese bullet and now will punish both his ex-girlfriend and her husband for this insult, it takes the film forever to let us know about it. And what with culture clashes, race hatred, and a smarmy prosecutor at the trial, the film is intended to give us a portrait of a bigoted America at mid-century. Certainly this gets no argument from me; but the film, and I presume the book, suffers from the same adolescent angst as Ishmael, namely that it has no perspective on itself. Everything is a shock; everything is happening for the first time; everything is as though it had never happened before.
There are some redeeming qualities, though. One is magnificent photography by cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has captured both the grey daylight of winter in northern latitudes and the winter fog on water in which everything is lost to an infinite soft blackness. Another is the work of Max Von Sydow as the defense lawyer and the versatile James Cromwell and James Rebhorn as the judge and prosecutor. Watching good actors at work is one of the few pleasures in the film.