By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 07, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The precipitation that descends on coniferous vegetation in Snow Falling on Cedars is a thick curtain of white that hushes a fictional island off the coast of Washington State and turns a fishing village into a vista any artist might long to capture. As shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson, in Scott Hicks’ busy yet inert adaptation of David Guterson’s 1994 bestseller, it’s a landscape you want to gaze at as you would a museum masterpiece—by tuning out the world around you.

For better or worse, you can do just that while watching this exceedingly blurred rendering of a simply told, artful novel; Hicks, in his first post-Shine project, meanders so fitfully between scenes and time frames that he leaves all too much time for eyes (and thoughts) to wander. The director and the prolific Ron Bass (The Joy Luck Club, Waiting to Exhale) collaborated on the screenplay, which describes the complicated relationship between Washington’s Anglo- and Japanese-Americans: Time shifts between the 1950s, when Kazuo Miyamoto is on trial for the murder of a white fisherman, and the 1940s, when thousands of local Japanese-Americans were herded into internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And bridging the two unhappy chapters is the thwarted love affair between Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) — now married to Kazuo — and local boy Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), now a hard-shelled journalist.

But how can Hicks be two places at once when he’s not anywhere at all? Hawke scrunches himself into such a dark knot that we have no idea who Ishmael is or why he acts as he does, but we have all too overblown an image of Ishmael’s newspaperman father (Sam Shepard) as a virile idealist. It takes forever to learn the facts of Miyamoto’s case, but it takes a minute to realize that as his wheezing old lawyer, Max von Sydow is a crusted ham. As snow falls and falls and continues to fall, between flashbacks of young Ishmael and Hatsue in more innocent days, there is little to do but admire the scenery. And for that, why sit in the dark? C — LS

Snow Falling on Cedars
Ethan Hawke
Youki Kudoh
Rated PG-13
127 Minutes