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Witness Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 1, 2005

    Witness Review
    “So, first time to the big city. You'll see so many things.”

    Way back in 1985, when Peter Weir's Witness first came out, I was a thrill-seeking teeny-bopper and interested only in pure genre product - the hi-octane action movies and gory horrors of the day. But, I was a huge fan of Mel Gibson, largely due to Mad Max, and had seen him in Weir's excellent double-act of Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously, both films allowing me to discover the unhurried, unfussy style that the director has maintained ever since. His attention to detail, nuance and often delicate character-interplay was a tonic to the brainless brawn and brawl fodder that I had become accustomed to. However, when I first saw the culture-clash drama Witness (Weir's first American movie), featuring another fav actor of mine in Harrison (forever Indy) Ford, I found it to be a dreadfully boring yawn-inducer that had me scuttling swiftly back into the bruising familiarity of the ten-a-penny Rambo and Commando clones so rife at the time. And, to be honest, I had never actually made the effort to watch it since then, despite my admiration for Weir's later work - Master And Commander being simply magnificent. But now, with the dubious benefit of so-called maturity, I have had the opportunity to witness (ahem) Witness's rebirth in this new Special Collector's Edition. So, has time altered my perception of this highly praised and multi-layered movie, or was I right to have stuck with the immediacy of the guns 'n' guts quick-fix that I knew and loved?

    When a young Amish woman, the recently widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and her son, Samuel (played by Lukas Haas) leave the harmonious sanctity of their community to visit Rachel's sister, a train delay strands them in the bustling Philadelphia station, where Samuel is unfortunate enough to witness the brutal murder of an undercover narcotics agent. Thrown immediately into the hectic, and violent, police investigation led by tough cop, John Book (Ford), they find themselves as fish out of water, until events conspire to switch the situation around when Book takes a bullet, and realises the danger that they all face by staying in the city. So, fleeing with them back to their close-knit Amish community way out in rural Pennsylvania, Book becomes the stranger in a strange land, baffled by this hardworking, religiously-devoted way of life as he attempts to unravel the murderous plot in which corrupt cops have ensnared him.

    “We're all very happy that you lived, John Book. We didn't know what to do with you if you died.”

    Nursed back to health by Rachel and Samuel's sage old grandfather, Book discovers that he is going to have to embrace their customs until he can figure a way out of this mess. His methods and disciplines are poles apart from their way of thinking and their beliefs though, and Weir certainly likes to address these differences in some languid moments of soul-searching - Samuel playing with Book's loaded gun, Book's having to help out on their farm with horrendous 4.30 am starts and, most pertinently, an impromptu dance lesson that sees Rachel taking brazen steps out from a lifestyle that frowns upon such easy pleasures. That she and Book will ultimately forge a doomed relationship is inevitable, and a tad contrived, but ultimately necessary if the narrative is to have some heart. Her nominal boyfriend from within the community, played with a marvellous naturalism by first-time actor Alexander Godunov (best remembered as John McClane's arch-nemesis Karl in the original, and best, Die Hard) keeps his jealousy wholly in-check, his non-aggressive morals allowing him to tolerate and accept the newcomer with open, and forgiving, charm. Check out his terrific horse and cart race with the speeding train at the start for a glowing example of his character's simple joy of life. It's a real shame that Godunov died so young. Eagle-eyed viewers should also look out for the King Of Men, himself, Viggo Mortenson as another fresh-faced innocent from within the village.

    “John Book, while you are in this house, I insist that you respect our ways.”

    The Amish community and their simple, but resolutely faithful, culture come across with a pastoral elegance that is designed to take us into their world with much less of a culture-clash than you might have expected. Weir paints them convincingly, and without the quaintness that the tourists, who flock to see them like zoo exhibits, see. This is a passive society that thrives on hard work, fertile land and the words of the good Lord. The most threatening thing they could ever do is give you a good shunning for bad behaviour. The simple joy of raising a barn is something that the entire community takes heart from, and the scene in which Book aids them in this undertaking is, perhaps, the set-piece of the movie, with John Seale's phenomenal photography capturing its skeletal structure like a temple against the lush, sweet landscape. Harrison Ford's well-known carpentry skills are tested elsewhere in the movie, too. This entire middle-section slows the pace down considerably, losing the bite that the opening murder possessed and redirecting the plot into the field that I believe Weir wanted to explore all along. The corrupt cop/murder theme is really just a macguffin, the hook to get Book (and us) into the heart of this unusual setting. Though, I think Weir's motives were much more than simply educational. He likes to sit back and analyse the differing motivations, the anthropological map of society's values and the point whereupon we all, no matter what our creed, politics or religion may be, collide. And it is beautifully ironic that the very segment that so alienated and bored me all those years ago I actually find is now the best, and most entertaining element of the movie. Certainly, the thriller aspect is uninspiring, and the violent denouement that sees Book's world impacting harshly upon the peaceful Amish people feels forced, ugly and unwelcome. The very aspects of the film that I would have liked the most first time around now actually threatening to derail the meaningful insight that they bookend.

    “It's not our way.”

    “But it's my way.”

    The performances are often tremendous. Ford, even without the benefit of any real back story to add depth and relevance to his discoveries with the Amish, gives us a vulnerable hero, who is as at risk from his own reluctant entrancement by this throwback way of life as he is from his duty-bound morals. The awkward moment when Rachel unashamedly allows him to see her bathing creates some resonant chinks in his armour that are all the more believable with Ford's effortless downplaying. Likewise, the scene out on the veranda as lightning scores the night-sky above, is a delightful expose of inner feelings played out with just a frightened look in the eye and a quivering expression in the shadows. McGillis is luminous as Rachel, her maternal quality actually benefiting the role and making her subsequent fall from grace with this modern-age stranger in their midst all the more tangible and daring. Much like Ford, she manages to convey so much without actually saying anything - just a look, or a turn of the head. But, if the film is to falter with any performance then it is with little Lukas Haas. Maybe it is because we have been blessed with such a veritable roster of uncannily talented children in recent years - from Osment to Highmore - but Haas just does not manage to pull off the role, at all. His wide-eyed innocence is evident, and sadly identical, in every situation he finds himself in. “Lukas, look scared,” “Lukas, look interested,” you can imagine Weir prompting, and, in the most unconvincing moment of all when he spots the killer's photograph in a police trophy case, “Lukas, look serious,” his one-look-fits-all lets the tension of the scene seep irrevocably away. Don't get me wrong here, Haas was only very young and I am certainly not blaming him for any lack of range, but it appears that Weir, whose casting for the movie was faultless otherwise, picked him for that one doe-eyed expression, little-knowing that he would be saddled with little else throughout the entire movie. And, of course, this reverberates tragically during the start-and-finale action scenes which hardly encourage us to empathise with his plight. We just don't feel any concern for him - if he's not realistically afraid, then nor are we.

    “You bring fear to this house.”

    Another element that I find jarring is the score by Maurice Jarre (pun intended). Peter Weir has often opted for electronic ambience to underline his themes and motivations, and it has worked very well before with the afore-mentioned Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously (both having synthesised elements to awesome effect by Jean Michele Jarre and Vangelis). But Jarre's peaceful tones here, which are perhaps to serve as a counterpoint to the Amish shunning of technology by having their signature music played out electronically, are ill-fitting with the scenery and the imagery, often reminding me of woeful ambience dished out by Tangerine Dream at their worst, which dates and submerges the film quite badly. The main theme may well linger in the mind afterwards but, in my opinion anyway, for all the wrong reasons. Plot-wise, having Book drive his young witness around the seedier parts of town, roughing-up a suspect and ramming his face against the car window to see if Samuel can identify him is quite preposterous, as is Book having the boy and his mother stay at his own sister's house whilst the investigation takes place. He's meant to be unorthodox but not irresponsible.

    Despite these last few misgivings, Witness, after all these years, has certainly grown in my estimation. The character study is fantastic and the richness of detail and atmosphere is peculiarly mesmerising for what is really quite a small film. The lacklustre thriller part of the tale is sadly necessary in getting us to the good bits - which now reside in the once-slumbering middle-section of the film - though, I think that when viewing it again, I would ditch these suspense-less bookends and stick to that slow-moving, time out of time chapter as it is far more rewarding. So, it would appear that my view of the movie has undergone a reversal somewhat akin to John Book's predicament. Where once I favoured the gunplay aspect and wanted more of it to replace the dull harmony that was getting in the way, I would now happily edit out the killings and stay with the Amish. Go figure.