June 19, 2012

Witness (1985)

Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Harrison Ford ("John Book"), Kelly McGillis ("Rachel"), Josef Sommer ("Schaeffer"), and Lukas Haas ("Samuel"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Paramount)
Running time: 01:52:07
Country: USA

John Book is a Philadelphia detective who uncovers an illegal drug operation involving some dirty cops and subsequently goes into hiding with an Amish community once the shit hits the fan.

I can't think of many thrillers or genre films that involve Amish characters, which is one of the reasons why I sought this movie out - that and it's directed by Peter Weir, a filmmaker who I should be a lot more familiar with. Weir is an Australian director who made films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS very early in his career, eventually branching out and going on to direct films in America with the likes of Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, and Robin Williams as leading men, and he was also one of the directors responsible for helping fellow Aussie Mel Gibson break out and achieve stardom. I haven't seen much of his work, but from what I hear he's a director who has consistently made solid films throughout his career, and WITNESS, to me, is one that I'd feel comfortable labeling as such.

Having never been exposed to the Amish way of life other than what I see on television and in movies, WITNESS is an interesting, eye-opening look at the Amish community. Whether it's accurate or if it's looked upon negatively by the Amish (although I'm assuming most of them haven't seen this movie), I have no idea, but the film does provide some insight into how they function, which then led to me doing some research on them and learning more. I admire their DIY ethic, but then there's also the part of me who obviously can't relate to them and therefore doesn't quite understand their beliefs. Regardless, something as simple as the incorporation of Amish characters into a cop thriller is interesting a number of ways.

First, there's the juxtaposition of the Amish people against the city setting and "modern society". Of course the Amish don't rely on electricity and technology, so their means of doing things are very primitive, comparatively speaking. For example, there's a great shot early in the film of a horse and buggy at a stop light, which speaks volumes about how out-of-place the Amish people are, and - even though it's wrong - it also justifies why the locals would see them as a nuisance, which is something that comes into play as the film goes along. Secondly, there's the culture shock. For reasons that I don't necessarily need to get into, a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his mother, Rachel, are brought into the city by Harrison Ford's character early in the film before the proverbial shit hits the fan; while the boy looks at his surroundings with a sense of innocent curiosity, Rachel isn't happy about being in the city since it puts her at risk of betraying her strict beliefs. On the other hand, you have Ford's character co-existing with the Amish later in the film, and from there we get to see some interesting parallels between his character and Rachel, not to mention the fact that he's an outsider amongst a group of people who are seen as outsiders themselves.

The whole crime element of the film, really, is a catalyst for the Amish bringing an outsider into their community (Ford), which is essentially the main focus of the film. That being said, WITNESS may not be what people expect (assuming there are people reading this who haven't seen it), but it's not to say that the crime and thriller elements are disregarded completely; it's a steady part of the film's plot, but it's not a police procedural per se.

Overall, WITNESS is a great film for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the cast. Harrison Ford is as charismatic and charming as ever, and Lukas Haas is quite good as the young Amish boy, Samuel. The film is also shot really well - not in a way that it's flashy, but there are some interesting camera shots and uses of lighting throughout. Aside from the cast, though, the highlight of the film for me was the score, which was composed by Maurice Jarre - lots of synth and generally odd for the type of film that this is, but it's very effective and atmospheric nonetheless. There's also a death scene identical to one in DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW from a few years previous, and Viggo Mortensen turns up in a very early role as one of the Amish. Despite being ignorant when it comes to the work of Peter Weir, I think it's safe to say that I wouldn't recommend WITNESS as a starting point for him (he has a couple of films that were released by Criterion, so I'd go with those), but it's definitely one that I'd highly recommend regardless.

Score: 7.5

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