Most movies about racism make society out to be either much better or much worse off than it really is, and end by offering a mushy-headed optimism or impotent outrage in lieu of insight. What might be our most famous movie about racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, was wise enough to frame its story through the eyes of its children characters, understanding that their loss of innocence was far more compelling than the white slut and her chiffonier. Now comes Snow Falling on Cedars, the new film by Scott Hicks (Shine) that’s based on David Guterson’s best-selling novel. It’s a movie that seems to understand the perils of its theme, yet succumbs to a clenched sense of virtue just the same.
Set in 1950, with the memory of World War II fresh in its characters’ minds, Snow tells the story of a Japanese-American ex-GI who stands accused of killing a white fisherman on a remote island near Puget Sound, and the long-buried resentments uncovered by the ensuing trial. Even as he protests his innocence, Kazuo (Rick Yune) is strangely passive in the face of the charges against him. A local newspaper reporter, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), is also in a precarious position. He not only must overcome the bitterness he’s been living with since his childhood lover, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), ended their romance and married Kazuo; he must also come to terms with the demanding legacy left behind by his father (Sam Shephard), a principled newspaper publisher.
Much of the film takes place in a shadowy continuum of the main characters’ memories. Without warning it launches into flashbacks of Ishmael and Hatsue’s romance, Ishmael’s and Kazuo’s individual wartime experiences, Hatsue’s family life at Manzanar, and Ishmael watching his father pay the price for his racially tolerant newspaper editorials. At least some of these memories are relevant to the present-day story because Ishmael has discovered some documents that would clear Kazuo of the murder charge, but his lingering heartache is at war with the obligation to truthfulness that his father instilled in him. As a result, he carries the evidence with him wherever he goes, toys with it and worries over it, as he looks for the courage to produce it in court. Snow Falling on Cedars is about Ishmael’s search for an emotional liberation from himself and his memories.
Hicks and his co-writer Ron Bass are careful not to make their villains too villainous – none of the town’s bigots are as determinedly repellent as the white-trash father in Mockingbird – but neither are they very interesting or original. The sheriff (Richard Jenkins) and the coroner (James Rebhorn) are more petty than evil, so weightless that it’s hard to understand why the movie spends so much time on them. Snow does better with the dead fisherman’s mother (Celia Weston), a woman whose visceral distaste for Kazuo is accented by her Swedish-American heritage. And to its credit, the movie recognizes that the character whose bigotry does the most palpable harm might be Hatsue’s tradition-minded mother: after all, it is she who forces Hatsue to end her relationship with Ishmael because of his race.
Snow Falling on Cedars is most hurt by its remote lead characters. It’s a good thing that the plot constantly reminds us how much pain Ishmael is in because Hawke never expresses it; instead, he brings the same blanked-out quality to every scene. (No stand-up comedian would ever do an Ethan Hawke impersonation – he doesn’t have any personality to imitate.) To make matters worse, Kudoh gives an equally vacuous performance as Hatsue. Having two inarticulate lead characters is bad enough, but casting inexpressive actors in both parts is like a cinematic double negative. Your eyes ping-pong back and forth between them as you wonder what it is you’re supposed to be watching.
Snow also features that old standby of socially concerned courtroom dramas, the cagey and oracular defense attorney. This time it’s Max von Sydow in the Gregory Peck-Charles Laughton-Jimmy Stewart role, oozing conscientiousness and what’s supposed to be a lovable theatricality. (He’s plopping a well-worn cushion onto his courtroom seat in the movie’s first glimpse of him.) One old ham playing another old ham, von Sydow looks like he’s having fun even though he gets the movie’s most rotten dialogue, much of it congregated in a late-night speech that he delivers to Ishmael. The old pro gets through lines like, "Accidents rule every corner of the universe except maybe chambers of the human heart," without breaking down in either laughter or tears.
The lawyer character is of a piece with the movie’s tried-and-true mentality. Snow is set in a world where FBI agents are stripped of every tic and trait so that they can stand in for governmental coldness; where a young girl’s eyes twinkle with an audience-pleasing mischievousness as her older sister makes love; and where a woman, upon hearing that her husband has died, stares into space for a small eternity before stage whispering, "I warned him this would happen." Snow’s big set-piece, the Japanese townspeople’s evacuation to the internment camps, repeats nearly note for note the Jewish evacuation at the beginning of Schindler’s List. Despite its length and subject matter, the sequence plays at a great emotional distance, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Nothing – neither shame nor fear nor outrage – can break through the "great moment" sheen.
It’s unlikely that a movie containing such earthbound characters and dialogue should have the visual distinction of Snow Falling on Cedars, but Hicks and cinematographer Ralph Richardson have captured some utterly extraordinary images. The film’s opening sequence, depicting the events leading up to the fisherman’s death and the ensuing search for his body, is a parade of mind-boggling shots worthy of comparison to Terrence Malick. Snow is filled with the tones and textures of fog and rain and snow and ice; many scenes, framed as they are by clouds and forest-lined mountains, look like real-life renderings of Japanese rice-paper paintings. Hicks and Richardson also do some beautiful work with dead space, isolating characters in a world of velvety shadows or fog.
But inevitably the pretty images stop and the talk begins again. It can’t hurt anything for a prestige picture to take on the ills of racial prejudice, but it remains a puzzlement that such a dynamic subject so often leaves us yearning for more. In the end, Snow Falling on Cedars falls victim to its own reverential attitude: it forgets to include some human beings in its passionate defense of them.
– Tom Block