Witness (1985) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, brief nudity, and language
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Brent Jennings
Cameo: Viggo Mortensen, Timothy Carhart
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley
Review published February 23, 2008
Director Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show), in his first American production, crafts this thriller based on subtle touches and honest characterizations to success. His film would earn 8 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, winning two for its screenplay and editing. Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Return of the Jedi) would also earn his sole (to date) nomination for his rich performance as Philadelphia police detective John Book, who gets put in charge of an investigation of a murder in the bathroom of a bus terminal witness by a young Amish boy, Samuel (Haas, Boys). Samuel's finger of blame is pointed at another detective within the force (Glover, Silverado), and as Book investigates further, he comes to the conclusion that his commanding officer (Sommer, DARYL) is involved and will do what it takes to silence the boy, and anyone else who gets in the way, including himself. Events lead to John wounded and running for his life, eventually ending up in Samuel's Amish community to be mended. While there, controversy follows the "Englishman" for not fitting in, exacerbated by the chatter involving a possible romantic dalliance between himself and Samuel's mother, Rachel (McGillis, Top Gun). It's a race for time, as John must figure out what to do, while being actively pursued by crooked cops willing to kill anyone that threatens to uncover their misdeeds.
Thrillers come and thrillers go, and while some are titillating enough to capture an audience for a spell, there are increasingly few that are able to deliver the quality to last as a very good film decades after its release. Witness is one of the rare cases where this is true. The reasons why stem from an approach that suits the material, and material that offers a unique spin, by not being about just the murder plot on hand. It's about two worlds, the simple, plain life led by the quaint Amish community, where you can only get what you want if it pleases the others, and the dangerous one that John Book comes from, where one can get anything they so please, if they are strong enough to take it. The two worlds cannot coexist, which makes tension escalate when Book is in their midst, as the Amish people remain skeptical of him as an upright man, although by our standards in the outside world, he very much is. The romantic undercurrent between an Amish woman and a worldly man contains a permanent barrier between them, even if they are close enough to touch. To be together, one must cross over the barrier. Regardless of the outcome, it is a sacrifice neither is brave enough to bear.
Not many before Witness have showcased the Amish lifestyle, which certainly piques the curiosity for those seeing it, especially as it is depicted with such emphasis on authenticity. Although others have spotlighted it since, most do so in order to poke fun or undermine their ways of life, which keeps Witness refreshing for its ability to compare and contrast without choosing one way of life over another. It merely is what it is, but one thing that is interesting is how complicated it is to choose to live a simple life. Wars come and go, people enter the community, and people in the community must venture outside, and as time goes by, the more difficult it is to hold on to values, clothing and resistance to technology.
Although Harrison Ford had achieved great success in blockbuster films prior to Witness, this is the film that showed that he actually was a good actor outside of the action realm. With a characterization just as subtle as the film itself, we always now what John Book is thinking, even when he can't say what he would like aloud. Sadly, future efforts to branch out as an actor never quite panned out commercially, and Ford's most consistently appealing work remains in the action/adventure/sci-fi arena.
Witness is unusual because it does so many things without seeming to strive too much to do any of them. For a thriller, it's remarkably subdued, as it is as a romance, drama, and even a mild comedy. The ending is consummately gripping, if only because it is so unconventionally conventional. It's never particularly flashy or in any hurry to get where it needs to go, which, considering the spotlight given to the Amish lifestyle, is appropriate. As with life so it is with storytelling -- stick to the fundamental necessities and build from there.
©2008 Vince Leo