Witness (United States, 1985)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Calling Witness a crime thriller is technically accurate, but it does this layered and dramatically compelling movie a disservice. In fact, Witness is much more than a thriller. It's a love story, a fish-out-of-water tale, and an examination of clashing cultures in a modern world. For Harrison Ford, freed from the shackles of Han Solo (although still bound to Indiana Jones), this was an opportunity to try something different. The result was one of the most nuanced and competent performances of his career. Playing John Book allowed viewers the opportunity to see Ford the actor instead of Ford the action/adventure icon. It is one of the few times he has been given the opportunity to play in a straight drama.

The year is 1984. The place is 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a men's lavatory, an undercover cop has his throat slit by two of his fellow officers - Detective James McFee (Danny Glover) and his associate, Detective Ferguson (Angus MacInnes). There is one witness - a young Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), who is hiding in one of the stalls. He is in Philadelphia with his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), waiting for a train to take them to Baltimore. Enter Detective John Book and his partner, Detective Elden Carter (Brent Jennings), who are assigned to investigate the murder. When they learn that McFee is involved, it changes everything. Suddenly, this is no longer a simple homicide. Book confides his findings to his superior, Chief Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), only to learn that he too is involved. With nowhere else to turn, Book goes into hiding in Amish country, posing as one of the Lapp's cousins from Ohio. While there, Book recovers from a gunshot wound inflicted by McFee during an exchange of fire, and determines his next move. He also "goes native," helping out with chores around the farm, participating in building a barn, and falling in love with his attractive widowed hostess, Rebecca.

Witness began life as a fairly unremarkable police thriller; however, director Peter Weir's fascination with the Amish culture resulted in his taking the story in a more cerebral direction. There are still gunfights and an action-oriented climax, but the core of the film is about the struggles of a city man adapting to a foreign lifestyle. One could argue that there's nothing new about this plot element, but Weir's approach is unique. He treats the subject not as an opportunity for comedy (which is its most frequent application), but as a chance to explore characters and relationships. Harrison Ford was drawn to the project because it was unlike the other films he was appearing in. It gave him an opportunity to give a substantive performance without wandering too far off the beaten path.

For Weir, who had come to international notice with The Year of Living Dangerously, this was his first directorial foray outside of Australia. Ford's name on the marquee gave him considerable freedom when it came to assembling the rest of the cast. In particular, there was no pressure on him to hire well-known actors. As a result, aside from Ford, there are few familiar faces. Rachel is played by relative newcomer Kelly McGillis, who would go on to become one of the mid-'80s "it" girls after exploding into the limelight with this film and Top Gun. Alexander Godunov stepped away from ballet long enough to make his feature debut as Rachel's Amish love interest. Danny Glover, in his pre-Lethal Weapon days, is a chilling villain. There's also a small role for an unknown named Viggo Mortensen.

Some have argued that Ford gives the best performance of his career in Witness, and there's a lot of evidence to support the claim. Instead of his usual laid-back approach, Ford radiates intensity and passion, and he communicates a lot through expressions and body language rather than dialogue. The scene where Book encounters a topless Rachel is a perfect example of conveying meaning through performance. Open and unashamed, she offers herself to him. He, on the other hand, is embarrassed and uncomfortable, and turns down the offer. He later explains that if they had made love, either he would have to stay or she would have to leave. There's more to it than that, and we see it in their faces during their interaction. Witness is very much Ford's opportunity to shine as an actor, and to prove to his detractors that he could move beyond his iconic characters of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

To prepare for her part, Kelly McGillis spent weeks living with an Amish widow and her children. She also took speech lessons. Everything paid off. Admittedly, I have had only limited experience with the Amish, but as best I can tell, her performance is note-perfect. The same degree of authenticity informs the work of Godunov, Canadian actor Jan Rubes (as Rachel's father), and Lukas Haas. No Amish appeared in the film, even in minor roles, since the Amish believe that being photographed diminishes them. (There are reports, however, that they were fascinated by the filmmaking process, and many stood and watched while Weir was shooting on location.)

Although the police story is what draws us into Witness, it's the love story that holds us there. In the great tradition of tragic romances, these two would-be lovers are doomed from the start. His world and her world are separated by a cultural and religious divide that nothing can bridge. (This is the same essential theme at the core of Brokeback Mountain.) The two can steal moments with each other, and exchange glances and even kisses, but the relationship goes unconsummated. Rachel is willing to take the step but Book is not. He knows that they have no future. Perhaps she does as well but is more willing than him to take the chance.

Witness states its position about clashing cultures with eloquence, as Book, the epitome of a tough, world-centered man, is thrown into a place where the base elements of human nature are denied. An early image in the film shows an Amish horse-drawn vehicle amidst the trappings of a modern setting. Book's gun excites both fear and curiosity. When the pacifist Amish will not defend themselves against aggressors, Book acts on their behalf, unwilling as they may be to accept his aid. He can accommodate their world for a while, milking cows and helping to build a barn. In the end, however, he can no more survive in their world than they can in his. Therein lies the doom of his relationship with Rachel. They love each other - that much is clear - but they cannot be together. The real world would destroy them. So he must return to Philadelphia and she must remain behind.

Witness contains its share of great moments. There is suspense during the murder scene, when naive Samuel must use all his cleverness to avoid exposure and death at the hands of two killers. Tension is also the hallmark of the climax, when an unarmed Book must go up against three ex-colleagues, all of whom are packing guns. The way in which he deals with one of them is the mark of a thinking hero. The scene when the topless Rachel offers herself to Book - a moment pregnant with equal parts sexual tension and awkwardness - is unforgettable not because Kelly McGillis bares her breasts but because of the way in which Weir orchestrates the encounter. Finally, the construction of the barn remains one of Witness' hallmark sequences because it shows something that movies rarely display: the construction (not destruction) of something.

After Witness, Weir would go on to have a successful career inside and outside of Hollywood, with movies like Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander on his resume. As good as some of those titles are, the director never again achieved the mix of humanity and nature in conflict that he captures in this movie. Witness is not a perfect film, but it established Ford as an actor with range and Weir as a director who could produce more than "little" dramas set in Australia.

Witness (United States, 1985)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1985-02-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1