Snow Falling on Cedars

I’m guessing this is the excuse: Well, see, there was snow falling, and so the movie had to drive reeeeaaaallly slow to avoid skidding out.

“Snow Falling on Cedars” has all the makings of a great film. There’s a suspenseful murder trial, an ethical dilemma, issues of racism and prejudice, and beautiful cinematography.

Somehow, though, all these elements fail to come together. Instead, we get a film that feels much longer than it is, full of flashbacks, montages, and shots of people looking at each other. (Ethan Hawke, who stars in it, seems to have about 10 lines of dialogue all together.)

Hawke plays Ishmael Chambers, a small-town reporter in 1950s Washington state whose heart is still broken after his Japanese-American love Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) sent him a “Dear John” letter while he was fighting the war and losing an arm. Hatsue instead married another Japanese-American man, Kazuo (Rick Yune), who is now on trial for killing a man whose family screwed his family out of some land. (I’ve explained it much more clearly, concisely and in proper time sequence than the movie does, by the way.)

Ishmael comes across some evidence that seems to put Kazuo in the clear. His dilemma is whether or not to present it. On the one hand, if he comes forward, justice is served and an innocent man is cleared. On the other hand, if he stays silent, the man goes to prison (or is executed), thus making his beloved Hatsue available again.

It’s an interesting quandary whose potential is missed. The war flashbacks in which Ishmael goes through hell for his country and then gets dissed by his girl are harrowing, and almost succeed in making us sympathetic for him. But Hawke is so sullen and sulky throughout the entire film, effectively pushing the audience away, when all we want to do is give him a hug.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence to suggest that Hatsue regrets marrying Kazuo and wishes she’d married Ishmael — which means even if he lets Kazuo get convicted, that’s no guarantee Hatsue will take him back.

And still furthermore, the teen-age romance between Ishmael and Kazuo is shown entirely in flashbacks, with very little dialogue and very many scenes of them running through the woods and lounging around the hollow of a tree. These are nice, but they’re played by younger actors playing the same characters. Scenes establishing the love between Ethan Hawke’s Ishmael and Youki Kudoh’s Hatsue are few — and even there, Hawke is still adamantly poker-faced.

Everything is muted (except the orchestral soundtrack). The potentially exciting courtroom drama is toned down, the potentially passionate love between Ishmael and Hatsue is glossed over, Ishmael’s dilemma is tossed out without really examining it — the list goes on. A light snow seems to have fallen on the entire movie, covering everything up and leaving forms and shapes of a good film underneath it.

C (; PG-13, war-related death and mayhem, brief profanity, implied sex..)