"Snow Falling on Cedars"

A visually intense but rambling meditation on the power of memory that moves frame by frame and flake by flake.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 5, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Snow Falling on Cedars"
Directed by Scott Hicks
Starring Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow, James Rebhorn, James Cromwell
Universal; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, making-of documentary, deleted scenes, more

As Australian director Scott Hicks explains in his commentary on "Snow Falling on Cedars," his adaptation of David Guterson's bestselling novel is constructed as a process of gradual revelation. As beautiful and memorable as this film is, image by image and scene by scene, you could argue that it's way too gradual and doesn't manage enough revelation. The result is a curious hybrid that sometimes feels intriguingly close to a great movie and at other times like the product of some misconceived arty formula: "Legends of the Fall" mixed with "To Kill a Mockingbird," as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Few mainstream filmmakers these days can match Hicks (best known for "Shine") in sheer visual craftsmanship and a willingness to stretch and suspend time. Except for Max von Sydow, that great gray lion, as a stalwart defense attorney, the plot and characters disappear into Hicks' densely layered, almost wordless structure of memory and severely restricted color palette. Youki Kudoh is charming as the Japanese-American woman who, years earlier, abandoned a romance with a white man when her family was sent to a World War II internment camp, but star Ethan Hawke makes little impression as her obsessed ex-lover now facing a present-day ethical crisis. (We may actually see more of Reeve Carney and Ann Suzuki, who play the lovers as adolescents.)

Instead of a mood piece about lost love and racial injustice in the wintry Pacific Northwest, "Snow Falling on Cedars" becomes a kind of intense but rambling meditation on the power of memory. Hicks should get credit for finding a cinematic cognate for Guterson's literary prose, and there are dreamlike sequences here -- Hawke's near death in the war, the Japanese-American deportation from a Washington island -- that will stay with me forever. But impatient viewers are hereby warned: This humorless, essentially nondramatic experience is best spread across a long evening (or two), with plenty of breaks.

Hicks' earnest commentary will be most interesting to his admirers; he makes a strong case for the film as a carefully wrought work, but his real artistic breakthrough will come, in my opinion, when he takes himself a little less seriously. Making-of documentaries have already become a formulaic genre of their very own, and the one included here is an especially lifeless example of happy talk and mutual butt kissing.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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