Witness (1985)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Witness” could be considered a crime thriller, as some would recall it to be, but you’d only be sort-of right. Aside from being a thriller, it’s also a love story and a fish-out-of-water tale featuring the clash of cultures. Strangely enough, all of these elements come together not merely in a capable way, but in a masterful way. “Witness” is everything it needs to be—sometimes sweet, sometimes tense, and always gripping. Add it to the great direction by Peter Weir, an intelligent screenplay by Earl W. Wallace William Kelley, and great performances from actors including Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, and “Witness” is a great triumph.

This was Harrison Ford’s first opportunity to try something different in his acting career, in a time when he was free from his Han Solo image but still stuck to his Indiana Jones character. With his great performance in “Witness,” Ford was able to prove to people that he was more than just an action/adventure icon, and that he was a legitimate capable actor that can play drama convincingly. In “Witness,” he plays Detective John Book, who is called upon to investigate the murder of a police officer. He has one witness—an eight-year-old Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas). Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) were waiting in a Philadelphia train station for a train to take them to Baltimore, as Samuel witnesses the murder while hiding in one of the bathroom stalls. He was able to make out one of the two killers. And so, Book keeps Samuel and Rachel in the city for a while so Samuel can help him out.

At this point, it would seem like a simple homicide with different cultures. We see some early scenes that feature a bit of lifestyle for Rachel and Samuel in their Amish community, and then once they come into the mainland and this unexpected event occurs, they get a sense of modern police work as well as other cultural aspects, such as hot dogs, which Samuel enjoys. But “Witness” doesn’t keep it that simple. It only gets more complicated once Book discovers that it was a cop that was involved in the crime, and that changes things. Book tells his superior, Chief Schaffer (Josef Sommer), what he knows, only to find that he too is involved, thus putting Book, the kid, and his mother in danger. Book has no choice but to give up on the case and take Samuel and Rachel back home and go into hiding with nowhere else to go. Back at the Amish community, while Book recovers from a bullet wound brought on by a fiery encounter, Rachel lets the locals believe that Book is a cousin. Book is planning his next move, and in the meantime, helps out around the farm, doing chores and eventually helping to build a new barn.

All while this is happening though, Book falls in love with Rachel and the feeling may be mutual; Schaffer is searching for answers as to where Book is so he can silence him and even the kid and mother if need be; and Book has to make an important choice to either stay with the Amish community where he finds himself actually fitting in or back to where he’s more accustomed in the world of modern convenience. There is one person that he would stay for, and that is Rachel.

This story has so many levels to it that I wonder if Alfred Hitchcock could have hooked us in further. In some ways, “Witness” could be considered a Hitchcockian exercise, if you will, Hitchcock always loved to play his audience like a piano, and so director Peter Weir follows the same way and gives us a story that has so many things with it and yet is consistent in its structure and execution. His approach is quite unique in the way that “Witness” is not mainly about the crime aspects, as you’d expect it to be. It’s mainly about a man struggling and adapting to a new lifestyle. It’s not played for comedy; it’s played as straight drama to establish characters, relationships, and routines. And it states positions in clashing cultures with symbolism, such as Book’s gun, and moments of clarity and revelation.

The defining moments come after Book has been more or less accepted into the Amish community, and then encounters a topless Rachel who then offers herself to him. In this dialogue-free scene, Book declines, feeling embarrassed and uneasy. He later explains that if he and Rachel had made love that night, that he would have to stay or she would have to leave. She may be ready to risk a relationship, but Book isn’t so sure. What makes this romance interesting is that while they exchange friendly glances, which lead to good moments with each other and even a kiss, they may not have a future together. The real world would only get in the way. It’s a great example of tragic romance.

Another defining moment is when Book comes into town for a while and encounters some rowdy thugs who mock his clothing. He strikes back by punching one of them out, something that goes against the Amish culture. And then later, when the thriller aspects finally returns to the story in the inevitable climax, they amount to something because of everything that has been built up before. Book is forced to act in defense of the pacifistic Amish against the corrupt cop-killers. It’s not your standard action climax—it’s about something. There’s something to fight for and a reason for being. (And there’s also a clever use of a grain bin as a death machine.)

Harrison Ford is great and convincing as John Book, playing it straight and credible. But he’s not the only actor to earn praise in “Witness.” Kelly McGillis, as Rachel, is equally excellent. I heard that she took lessons in acting like an Amish widow, by experiencing life with the Amish and also trying to get her character’s speech just right. It all pays off. McGillis’ performance is note-perfect and feels very authentic. Also having their preparations paid off for the Amish roles are Jan Rubes as Rachel’s concerned father and Lukas Haas as Samuel the titular “witness.”

And by the way, I should point out that “Witness” shouldn’t be considered an insult to the Amish community. The movie never shows them in a negative way; they show them in a believable way. And I should also give credit to all the actors playing the Amish side characters for doing convincing work. You’d probably think that some Amish folks were brought along to become extras, but actually, no Amish appeared in the film because they believed that being photographed diminishes them. (Reportedly, however, the filmmaking process intrigued them.)

“Witness” gives us a murder to hook us into the story and then lets loose with the love story and the fish-out-of-water tale. It has many great moments, including the ones I described and also the murder sequence that brings the plot into motion is suspenseful on its own (as Samuel must avoid being seen by the killers). The acting is great, the story continues to invest as it goes along, and the result is a satisfying, terrific film.

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