Release Date: February 8th, 1985 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Peter Weir Actors: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas, Josef Sommer, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Patti LuPone, Viggo Mortensen
ith Harrison Ford in the lead, and with melodic yet spacey music by Maurice Jarre, one might mistake the opening seconds of “Witness” as some sort of science-fiction epic. But, of course, the appearance of an Amish sect surfacing from grassy fields immediately shifts this picture into the realm of drama. Yet even when words flash onscreen to designate the setting as Pennsylvania in 1984, there’s something dreamlike and otherworldly about the combination of music and careful camera movements. It’s almost too calm and serene to be straightforward realism; it’s artsy without being objectionably obvious.
The story picks up with the death of Jacob, whose widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) mourns amidst numerous gatherers. Her young son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), must also cope with the tragedy, though he’s enormously preoccupied with a trip into the big city for the first time, which holds countless new sights and wonders. Awaiting a train ride to Baltimore brings the technological mysteries of a drinking fountain and a towering bronze statue, but also the horror of a brutal crime. An undercover policeman has his throat cut in the bathroom by McFee (Danny Glover), who somehow misses the presence of little Samuel – who witnesses the murder in its entirety.
When detective John Book (Harrison Ford) is called in to investigate, he takes the boy and his mother down the street to look at potential suspects still in the area. Despite being a material witness to a homicide, Sam and Rachel want nothing to do with the case or the laws of the alien world of the “English.” The barbaric, knee-jerk, violent reactions of cops and the carrying of weapons bother her, while Rachel’s frankness comparatively gets to John – who has no patience for religious customs or ignorant disregard for the police work he so greatly values. And when Sam finally identifies the culprit – who turns out to be a Narcotics Lieutenant in the Philadelphia police force – all three of their lives are in danger. No one can be trusted and the only safe place might be right back into the small Amish village where the Lapps live.
Although the film is, on the outside, a crime thriller, director Peter Weir (“Gallipoli,” “The Year of Living Dangerously”) is firmly committed to tackling the culture clash and the drama of having an outsider hide out in an isolated community drastically at odds with his own ideology. There’s also time for romance, as Book is cared for by the conveniently available Rachel, who also happens to be age-appropriate and correspondingly attractive. They’re entirely different, though the struggle to use their philosophical opposition as a reason not to succumb to their developing attraction is a continuously uphill battle.
As for the mystery and corruption elements, quite humorously, phone calls can’t be easily made to locate Rachel; the Amish don’t have any telephones. This gives Book time to lay low, which also affords him lighthearted opportunities to learn the ways of his temporary wards, while the murderers tracking him are unable to regularly interfere in his unhurried acclimation. During his stay on the farm, an entertaining character study takes hold, examining the harmless flirtations that aren’t looked upon so casually by the strict mores of the Mennonites, as well as the rifts in work ethics and the contrasting views on manliness and chasteness.
Throughout, the actors are all quite convincing and natural, given the attention and scripting necessary to craft a strikingly different tale of law enforcement and its agents and the consequences of their interactions. In one of the most rewarding yet challenging scenes, John fights back against common antagonizers (tourists who view the Amish as quaint creatures), offering audiences a moment for satisfying reprisal while also reinforcing the notion that John can never truly fit in with the Amish beliefs against violence – and, indeed, the perspectives of the majority of moviegoers who will desire earnest intensity with their recompense. In the end, “Witness” also relents to the prevailing ideas on theatrical justice, culminating in a bullet-riddled, gore-laden showdown, even though it stops short of the overblown bloodbath to which a lesser filmmaker might resort. It’s also smart enough to conclude on a fulfilling, symbolic shot, again with Jarre’s unexpected yet sensational score.
– Mike Massie