The opening shot in Peter Weir’s “Witness” is of Amish men marching out of a wheat field, heading to a funeral.
From the very start of Weir’s 1985 film, there’s no mockery in the way this exotic world and those within it are portrayed. The film respects their stillness.
The Amish of “Witness” are good humored, focused in their discipline, devout and internal with their feelings. Filmed in Lancaster County and Philadelphia, Pa., “Witness” is one of the few American films to portray the Amish without cynicism and, in fact, with a detectable awe.
Perhaps the film isn’t entirely accurate in its depiction of this world, though how could anyone outside of the sealed-off Amish community know?
A widow named Rachel (Kelly McGillis’ breakthrough role) takes her son, Samuel (Lukas Haas) to the city. The lad visits a train station restroom where he witnesses a murder.
Samuel sees a man who looks like he’s up to no good (of course he’s not, as he’s played by Timothy Carhart, arguably best known playing the man who attempts to rape Geena Davis in “Thelma & Louise”). A couple of thugs enter and stab him to death, while Samuel watches silently in a stall.
A brash cop named John Book (Harrison Ford) and his partner (Brent Jennings) investigate the case and quickly realize it involves a conspiracy that endangers all involved. Book returns Rachel and Samuel back to their home and winds up hiding with them until things cool over in the city.
As Book immerses himself with the Amish, (who are polite but distrustful), he finds himself falling for Rachel and putting both their lives at risk.
Ford found a role with “Witness” apart from the adventure/fantasy genres that require him to be a hero. John Book is certainly the film’s protagonist, though he’s rougher around the edges than prior Ford characters and there’s nothing inevitable about the character’s odd journey.
Post-Han Solo, “Temple of Doom” and Rick Deckard, Ford was able to shed the impenetrability of being “the good guy.” Book is not a sure thing, and the early scenes, at best, paint him as a capable but arrogant protector for Samuel.
“Top Gun” made McGillis an icon a year later but her excellent performance here matches the film’s tendency to be deeply complex but remain subtle. Haas, in a remarkable child performance, makes Samuel greatly expressive with almost no dialog.
Jan Rubes is wonderful as Eli, the father figure who is able to see the benefit of Rachel and Book’s attraction but incapable of saying anything. Jennings is superb in perhaps the film’s most under-appreciated turn and Josef Summer, as Book’s superior, is so good in these roles, it’s no wonder he played so many questionable authority figures afterwards.
Summer has a great line where he tries, and fails, to convince a fellow police officer (and us) of how the Amish operate: his character says, “We’re like the Amish. We’re a cult, too. A club, with our own rules.”
The late Alexander Godunov is imposing as Daniel, a potential suitor for Rachel who works hard to keep his composure while Book clearly distracts her. It’s a shame Godunov is best known for playing a terrorist in “Die Hard,” as his work here (and, to a lesser extent, “The Money Pit”) displayed an arresting character actor.
Viggo Mortensen makes his film debut as a member of the Amish community- his introduction to the film and cinema in general is by shaking Harrison Ford’s hand which, as far as first-time moments for great actors go, is a nice indoctrination.
“Witness” questions the authoritarian rule of the Amish community, with Eli’s warning Rachel that “going too far” with Book could lead to her being “shunned.” The element offers the one example of the film being critical (albeit mildly) of the Amish lifestyle. The film is on Rachel’s side and supports her strength and individuality in a “plain” society.
Book is a fish-out-of-water character, but this isn’t a comedy of any kind. In fact, most of the laughs come from awkward misunderstanding (like Book’s badly timed reference to a coffee commercial while having dinner with Rachel’s family).
The needs of the story (Book’s re-birth among the Amish, his mentorship to Samuel, etc.) wisely takes a pause for the extended barn-raising sequence. Of all scenes, this is typically the one audiences and fans of this film remember the most.
It illustrates how purely and simply Weir presents these characters, as well as how his observant and character-driven approach to the material is refreshingly at odds with anything Hollywood released that year.
The concluding scene, in which Ford and McGillis have a final moment together, is astonishing. Once again, the decision to underplay and not spell everything out, results in a directness and honesty that most mainstream filmmakers would normally need to dumb down and overexplain.
Weir’s sensitive, thoughtful thriller, which runs a remarkably tight 112-minutes and features a lovely Maurice jarred score, is kind of a miracle. A lesser filmmaker would have made this about action, sex and condescending jokes at the expense of the principled Amish versus Book’s improvisatory approach to life.
The Oscar-winning screenplay (by Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley and Pamela Wallace) pares the story down to its essence and doesn’t oversell anything.
Weir puts the emphasis on silence. This is a meditation on the impact and cruelty of violence. “Witness” isn’t anti-gun, though the film’s cause-and-effect exploration of violent acts makes it an intriguing contrast to the same year’s “Rambo: First Blood, Part II.” Somehow, a feature-length rumination on pacifism vs. brute force is never heavy handed or forced.
There’s a crucial sequence where Book, dressed to appear plain and Amish, joins Eli and a few others for a trip outside their village (Book needs to make a phone call). Some locals torment Eli and especially Daniel. Book, already angry, lashes out at the cruel locals; stunningly, it’s not a rewarding moment of comeuppance and we the audience are in the uncomfortable position of not cheering on Ford as he “heroically” fights back.
In fact, Weir lingers on the man whose face Book leaves caked in blood. Its ugly and unsatisfying, as well as alarmingly smart; “Witness” is reminding us that violence, as seemingly inevitable and direct as it can be, is not always (or ever) an ideal solution to a problem.
Weir illustrates this by showing no less than the biggest movie star of my generation punching a deserving schmuck in the face and not allowing any satisfaction in the moment, only regret, for Ford and for us, in our desiring the moment.
Have I mentioned how brave this movie is?