David Guterson's best-selling 1995 novel set in the Pacific Northwest deals with the themes of lost love, racial prejudice, and the search for justice. Australian director Scott Hicks, trying to repeat the dramatic impact of his immensely popular film Shine, has made a grave error this time out. His fascination with flashbacks and innovative imagery and the overly operatic soundtrack diminish the impact of this intense drama he's adapted for the screen with Ron Bass. Here cinematic technique obliterates most of the emotional undertow of the story.

Nine years after Pearl Harbor, fisherman Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is on trial for the murder at sea of Carl Heine, Jr. (Eric Thal). Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who lost an arm in World War II, watches the trial from the balcony as the town's reporter of the event. He is bearing two burdens: the loss of Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), his childhood friend and lover who followed her mother's advice and married one of her own kind, and the feeling that he'll never measure up to his father (Sam Shephard), who as editor of the newspaper courageously spoke out against the anti-Japanese prejudice in the community.

As the two lawyers, prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn) and defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson (Max Von Sydow), advance their cases, there are constant flashbacks to the past. One of these involves the exile of many Japanese-American citizens to Manzanar, a concentration camp in the California desert. However, since most of these characters have not been developed, this monumental act of injustice lacks the emotional resonance of similar scenes in Come See the Paradise and Farewell to Manzanar.

In his closing remarks to the jury, Gudmundsson asks them to give "a report card for the human race" by coming up with a just and decent verdict. However, it is Ishmael who plays the wild card in the events at the trial's closing.