Director Scott Hicks came to prominence with Shine (Austrailia, 1996), a melodrama about an unstable pianist (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush). Nabbed by Hollywood, Snow Falling on Cedars was his follow up. This is also a melodrama intermingling a murder trial, a young man bitterness at, apparently, unrequited love, US internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and racial prejudice. A heavy amount for any film to carry but this carries it off brilliantly with stunning visuals (the image above is typical) throughout.
It succeeds, primarily, because of Hicks’ direction and editing. Using a variety of lens, varying depths of field and unusual angles, the Expressionist mise en scene reflects characters’ states of mind. The editing is often extremey rapid, pausing for the long take of Max von Sydow’s moving, closing speech for the defence; Sydow has a great line: ‘If I acted my age, your honour, I’d be dead.’ The narrative is riddled with flashbacks, sometimes of only one shot in length, and uses montage almost as much as continuity. The montage includes Eisentstein’s techniques of having shots ‘clash’ to create another meaning; so images from the central character’s (played by Ethan Hawke) war experiences are directly linked to his lonely and disabled (he lost an arm is emotionally crippled by his lost love) existence nine years after Pearl Harbor.
As in classic ’50s Hollywood melodrama, characters are often framed claustrophobically, trapped between door frames or behind ‘bars’. The incessant gloom of the weather adds to the melancholy that infuses the film.
Jeffrey Reichert shares my astonishment at the critical mauling the film received (I can understand why it failed at the North American box office – the mass audience isn’t good at questioning their own values). He says its one of the most visually stunning films of the ’90s; I agree, but wouldn’t limit it to that decade.