[Film Review] Witness (1985)


Title: Witness
Year: 1985
Country: USA
Language: English, German
Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
Director: Peter Weir
Screenwriters: Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cinematography: John Seale
Harrison Ford
Kelly McGillis
Lukas Haas
Josef Sommer
Alexander Godunov
Jan Rubes
Danny Glover
Bret Jennings
Patti LuPone
Angus MacInnes
Viggo Mortensen
Robert Earl Jones
Rating: 7.1/10

Vis-à-vis the holy grail for every Hollywood plodding actor, the Oscar glory, quondam megastar Harrison Ford appears to be an anomaly in terms of ambition, compared with his next-generation male box office draws like Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt (all currently thrice-nominated for their acting chops without a win, although their odds seem to recede in recent years due to multiple reasons), he contentedly and consistently prefers receipts-proof studio productions than potential Oscar baits, so it is an interesting case that his as yet sole Oscar nomination is derived from Antipodean director Peter Weir’s first Hollywood foray, WITNESS, which grafts a boilerplate thriller template onto the rarely presented Amish minority dwelling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and becomes a dark horse hit and unlikely Oscar contender with 8 nominations and two wins, does Ford ride on the coattail of its runaway success or is he really Oscar-worthy?

Before we even lay our eyes on Ford’s Philadelphia detective John Book, Weir masterfully opens the film with a pastoral, solemn Amish funeral to introduce widow Rachel Lapp (McGillis, in her breakthrough role) and her 8-year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas, for this reviewer’s money, the cutest, most telegenic kid ever to melt your heart), then, right during his maiden trip to a big city, in the Philadelphia train station, Samuel inadvertently witness a murder in the men’s room, profuse blood is splattered in front of his innocent eyes, and he only avoids being caught by a hair’s breadth, what an extraordinary kid he is! Possessing such presence of mind, he should be plugging for Amish upbringing afterwards.

Ergo, here enters John Book, our diligent detective, whose life soon is imperiled by Samuel’s chance discovery of the assassin, which links the rotten core to his direct superior Chief Paul Schaeffer (Sommer, looks out of sorts in his anemic complexion), after surviving an ambush and driving Rachel and Samuel back to their home turf, a wounded John stays to recuperate, and begins to participate in Amish activities, inevitably mutual attraction sizzles between him and Rachel (ignited by a sensual, perspiring humming and dancing to the tunes of WONDERFUL WORLD), there are plenty time before Schaeffer and his lackeys can pinpoint his whereabouts (a plot device seems only probable at that time), during which John impressively shows his carpentry skill (an in-joke because Ford was a carpenter before plunging into showbiz) in the annual barn-raising day, whacks a whippersnapper who taunts the pacifist Amish people, and finally unleashes his hitherto suppressed desire with a reciprocal Rachel, Weir is truly au fait with the stoked passion between a man and a woman, who are hampered by their different persuasions and uncertain futurity, and not only projected from a habitual male gaze angle.

A final showdown is respectfully left no Amish being hurt, after Book using ingenuity to dispatch two villains (a maniac Danny Glover included), the danger is defused by a testament to the truism “there is safety in numbers”, which lends the story a surprisingly realistic spin out of its well-worn genre tropes. Ford is as good as one can expect, conjuring up bonhomie, bona-fides and sex appeal with sufficient exigency and commitment, and so is Kelly McGillis, stalwartly sticks with her guns in fidelity to Rachel’s true feelings. A minor gripe is that Lukas Haas’ Samuel has been mostly left on the sideline when romance and cultural adaptation is put to the fore, a lost opportunity to mine into the psyche of a young kid relative to the concept of “innocence lost”, when Haas manifests a rare affecting brilliance onscreen. That said, WITNESS thrives as a consequential conglomerate of enclave infotainment and genre exercise, a shot in Weir’s arm and a boon to Harrison Ford’s awards-eluding acting facility.

referential entries: Weir’s THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982, 6.4/10), THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998, 8.3/10), PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975, 8.9/10).

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