Witness (1985)

Witness (1985)

A fine movie offers many ways to enjoy it. Performances, themes, plot and cinematography are just a few. An exceptional movie like Witness makes me want to talk about them all at once. A crime drama whose centerpiece scene is an Amish-country barn-raising, a love-story where yearning is palpable in a long glance and a hard swallow, and a film equally at ease in the bliss of purring kittens and the naked hate of a killer's eyes, Witness is a movie that can be watched for the mystery, for the romance, for the director's choices, for the scenery... For all of it, all at once too.

Widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas) have left their Amish home to visit her sister. Awaiting their next train in Philadelphia, Samuel witnesses the murder of a police officer. The investigating detective, John Book (Harrison Ford), quickly realizes that Samuel has seen something that will get them all killed. They flee for their lives, but not before Book is shot. Hoping to save Rachel and Samuel, Book manages to get them back to their home, but is too injured to leave. Though the district elders realize the situation is dangerous, Book is allowed to stay. Rachel's gentleman caller, Daniel (Alexander Godunov) is not happy about the virile newcomer's presence, even though Rachel's father-in-law chaperones. There's no leaving behind the ugliness of the murder and the evil the drove Book out of the city. The two worlds collide.

With so much material, director Peter Weir (Dead Poet's Society, The Cars that Eat People) might have gotten lost in any number of places. The writers--Earl Wallace and William Kelley, two veterans of television screenplays--had provided a solid, durable plot with understated dialogue that could have easily been reduced to trite cliche. Weir could have told a story of a jaded cop who finds the simple life is all that he really needs. It might have been a story of an innocent world spoiled by the evil that men do. Dirty cops versus religious zealots might have devolved into simple morality play. The pristine countryside could have been strewn with rotting corpses, oh the humanity. None of that happens.

Weir is equally comfortable with the foul grime and alluring art of a big city as well as the brilliant skies and emerald fields complete with manure of the countryside. A lightning storm on a hot summer night adds to the steam of Book's gaunt hunger for Rachel. There is horror in a killer pausing to wash his hands of his victim's blood and simple pleasure in a boy's wonder at the speed of a train. Weir doesn't rush past these moments. With the careful casting of Ford, Haas and McGillis, willingness to let glances and silence tell some of the story, and the masterful attention to the settings, Weir and the writers take the story deeper into the people and places.

Book does adapt to the simple life, takes pleasure in helping raise a barn. Recognizes the straightforward mano-a-mano challenge from Daniel for Rachel's affections. Harrison Ford shines as a man of few words and a lot of thoughts. He enjoys Samuel's lecture about how the waterwheel pumps water into the house, and how to make a kitten purr. His attraction to Rachel is deep, but his respect is deeper--he's a rough cop, but a good man. In one memorable scene he dances with her to the car radio and three times might have turned the moment into a kiss and probably more. Yet three times he steers away, but he can't quite make himself let go of her. It's romantic and charming and hopeful, and anything but what Roger Ebert called 'the semi-obligatory lyrical interlude' that is so annoying in many movies. After all, why can't he teach her to dance? Why should that be so radical?

Rachel's story is also given serious treatment. She's a widow and doing what is expected of her. Daniel will eventually propose and she will marry him, quite likely. She is protective of her son, follows the rules, but she's neither a sheep or weak. Kelly McGillis is a woman of firm, strong bones and is perfectly cast--of German extraction, Amish women are not size two waifs. Perhaps because she is larger than size two explains why she doesn't appear on the movie poster--Hollywood marketing missed the point that Witness is in large part a woman's story as well as a cop's. Her attraction to Book is equally palpable, but so is her faith. She is aware that she is flirting with Book and when her father-in-law warns her she could be shunned, she protests she has done nothing wrong but it truly concerns her. Among other things, she wouldn't be able to attend church with her son. Yet she hopes that Book will stay and that her feelings for him can change from shameful to welcome. Why can't he unlearn his world?

Equally considered is the nature of community. When people trust and count on each other, the fabric of their lives stays strong and safe. The film's juxtaposition is between communities where the rules are working for its people, among the Amish, and where they have badly broken down, in Book's police brotherhood. Among the Amish the rules are respected and no one goes hungry, everyone has shelter and contributes valued labor. The film doesn't linger long on the fact that politically the women have no power. Then again, it's not as if women are in places of power in Book's world either.

Weir and the cinematographers create a sense of magical realism in many of the scenes of the Pennsylvania countryside, contrasting the quiet of fields with the congestion of traffic in ways that bring a quick smile, but not so heavy handed that the Amish are insipid saints. Their jokes are earthy, Daniel's intent toward Rachel is equal parts admiring and mercenary, and women are not included in the system of elders. Book is discomfited but respectful of the fanatical avoidance of technology. He (and the viewer) find a wonderful harmony and healing in the barn-raising. Filmed in sharp, crisp light, with score and no dialogue, it is a dance of time-proven engineering and communal effort. It is exactly the kind of reward for a job well done that Book has not had in his cop brotherhood. As a viewer decades later it's a poignant reminder that American neighbors can put down their arguments and help each other. Ironically and sadly, Weir's success at showing off the Amish world brought even more tourists--who are not portrayed kindly in the movie--to their doorsteps.

A word about the score. I'm a fan of Maurice Jarre's electronic music and have been for a long time. The score has fared reasonably well over the decades (though not as well as Vangelis's Chariots of Fire score), and it still works best in the Amish countryside. It also works well when Samuel identifies the murderer to Book. There are no words, only a long exchange of glances and growing tension aided by the music and Ford's ragged swallow that says so plainly that they are all in deep trouble. The score does jar badly in the only love scene, which is brief.

Theater fans will like the quick scenes with Patti LuPone as Book's sister. Quick-eyed viewers will spot Viggo Mortensen in the barn-raising scene. The late Alexander Godunov is very good as the disconcerted Daniel. Scenes of violence are brief but brutal and it's rated R for the F-word said several times, and some brief nudity, though I'd say most 13+ teens wouldn't bat an eye.

I have heard people call it slow, and it is certainly slower than any other crime drama I can think of, but that's because it's an unusual crime drama. Every time I watch I begin by getting lost in Samuel's point-of-view. I see the story unfold through his luminous eyes. He is, after all, the witness. His watchfulness is something that serves the viewer well throughout the movie because there are many wonderful elements to savor. In the end, it's Book who witnesses far more than he expects. But because of the way the movie begins and ends, the story is really Rachel's--so if you watched Witness once already, don't you want to watch it again and figure out what I mean by that?

Made for an estimated $12 million, it's also a testament to what good craft from cast, writers (Oscar for best original screenplay), director and crew can do--it doesn't have to take a mountain of money to make an enjoyable, durable movie.

Witness at IMDB

One-Line Summary Witness (1985):  A good cop hides out in Amish country and watches over a young witness to a murder while adapting to the way of life and his feelings for the boy's mother. 

What's It Worth? Witness (1985): Strong story, good performances, lots of ways to look at this movie make it worth having in your collection. Often on cable or on sale. Collect it.

Watch it Again? Witness (1985): You can follow Book's story, or Rachel's story, or how different themes interplay, or just be reminded that people help each other. It's an unusual crime-love-drama to come back to every couple of years. Probably.