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Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

  Directed by: Scott Hicks
Written by: Ronald Bass, David Guterson, Scott Hicks
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Yôki Kudô, Max von Sydow, Rick Yune
Links: Snow Falling on Cedars on the IMDb, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy the Book
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 5.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) is also mentioned in mino's review of A Civil Action (1998).

"A nice try, but… no." - a review by mino

I've mentioned before (in my review of A Time To Kill (1996), among other places) how easy it is to make a good legal drama. Legal dramas all follow the same basic formula, but somehow end up familiar and comfortable, rather than boring — it's very difficult to make a truly awful legal drama. They're usually good but not exciting.

Australian Scott Hicks, of Shine (1996) fame, is therefore to be commended for trying something different, even if only slightly. Based on a novel by David Guterson, Snow Falling On Cedars tells the story of a murder in a small Washington state fishing town in the 1950s. When a member of the local Japanese community is blamed, race tensions in the town threaten to boil over. Is Kazuo (Rick Yune) really the killer? Or is he being blamed purely because he's Japanese, despite the fact that he was a war hero for the U.S. army? It's up to local newsman Ishmael Chambers (a kind of bored-looking Ethan Hawke) to find out.

Yeah, OK. It's not really that different, right? I mean, maybe it's just a little less The Firm (1993) and a little more To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). But in a way, there's still a difference there, in that Snow Falling On Cedars tries to be a kind of ‘arthouse legal drama’. Hicks tries to take the focus off the courthouse a little, and make a searching movie about racism and love (Chambers has a thing for Kazuo's wife, which complicates things) with a bit more of an aesthete's eye. The scenes of legal dramas are interspersed with dreamy flashbacks; long, lingering shots of snow-covered trees (I'm no botanist, but I'm guessing they're probably cedars; call it a hunch); and the occasional rambling dialogue about life or love or… whatever.

Sounds good, right? Different, unusual, as Kath and Kim might say? Well, not really. Because in trying to make such a movie, Hicks has created something of an unpleasant hodge-podge. The love story doesn't fill in characters' backgrounds and add some spice to the story; instead, it detracts from the drama. The story of racism has been done a million times before, and there's nothing here to make it really worthwhile. The quest to solve the murder is itself not a particularly interesting subplot, and the resolution thereof is so rushed as to be both confusing and laughable. The courtroom scenes are half-hearted and end up degenerating into the same old clichés, though there are some notable performances in these sections of the movie which redeem it somewhat: particularly the excellent Max von Sydow as the weatherbeaten but wise defence counsel, and James Cromwell as the judge.

The direction itself is rather, uh, ‘lumpy’. While the film looks great, the jumping around between different time periods is confusingly execute and seemingly done without thought to character or plot development, and the pacing is awful. Too many parts drag, and just as many seem to fly by. It's difficult not to think that Hicks was a little too obsessed with showing off his ‘eye’, and not nearly careful enough to make a good movie.

It's hard to recommend Snow Falling on Cedars as anything other than a good-looking but perfectly average film. However, there is one thing well worth keeping an eye out for: the small role played by Max Wright, as the town coroner, is an absolute delight for all children of the eighties who fondly remember his stuttering, staccato performance as Willie Tanner in ALF. Now there's a man who should be getting more work.

mino gives this movie 5 out of 10.
Review created on Mon 2 Aug 2004

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