By the end of two hours that feel more like three, filmgoers may come up with a new name for the calcified un-film they've just seen: "Snow Falling on Cedarzzzzzz."
The armature around which "Snow Falling on Cedars" turns -- very, very slowly -- is the mysterious death of a fisherman off San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound. It's the early 1950s, when memories of World War II are still fresh in Americans' minds, so it's no surprise that the police pick up Kazuo Miyanmoto, one of the many Americans of Japanese descent who live on the island, for murder.
Watching the trial is local newspaper reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who takes a very personal interest in the proceedings and whose own investigation leads to a heart-wrenching decision involving a beautiful woman named Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), whom he loved years before.
The usually loquacious Hawke has very little to say in "Snow Falling on Cedars," much of which is spent with him staring at the back of his beloved's head from the courtroom balcony. When we're not watching Ishmael moon about, the audience is treated to one of several flashbacks, either of an adolescent love affair (lots of grabbing and panting in the hollowed-out trunk of a cedar tree), of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war or of Ishmael's own misadventures overseas.
Soon enough, we are returned to the overheated courtroom, where lawyers and witnesses drone on. The longueurs aren't even cured by the usually electrifying presence of Max Von Sydow, who plays Kazuo's attorney and sees the movie to its utterly predictable conclusion.
Filmed by Scott Hicks ("Shine") with worshipful attractiveness and restraint, the ponderously inert "Snow Falling on Cedars" -- which was adapted from the David Guterson novel -- ultimately groans under the weight of its own quiet gorgeousness. It's the single best argument against good taste to be seen on screen lately.
'Snow Falling on Cedars'
Rated PG-13 (disturbing war images, sensuality and brief strong language)
Running time 127 minutes
Released by Universal Pictures
Sun score: *