Witness (1985)

“It’s not our way.”

Witness Poster

Synopsis:
When an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) witnesses a brutal murder in a train station bathroom, the policeman (Harrison Ford) assigned to the case does whatever he can to protect the pair from harm.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Australian director Peter Weir’s… fascinating meditation on violence/peace is extremely well made”: it’s “gorgeous to look at” (John Seale’s cinematography is “excellent”), “very suspenseful”, and features “truly memorable performances by the two leads” (though I’m equally impressed by Haas’s child performance as the wide-eyed “witness”). He points out the “delicately sensual sexual content”, including “beautiful, radiant McGillis standing bare-breasted and unembarrassed as she exchanges stares with [Ford] in the next room” and “the two danc[ing] in the barn” together. However, Peary concedes that “the Amish people’s protest that this film didn’t represent them properly seems to have foundation”, given that “we learn little about them except for their abhorrence of violence (which at times seems like a convenient plot device) and their sense of community” (he accurately notes that “the film has the best communal building scene since the one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers“).

Peary further notes that “the major problem with the film is that it has trouble mixing commercial Hollywood elements with the mysterious elements that usually dominate Weir’s films”, specifically in its glorified emphasis on “violent action sequences” — though I believe this is intentional; indeed, Weir and “screenwriters Earl W. Wallace and Bill Kelley” seem to bank on audiences’ shock at the collision of these two radically different cultures (Amish country life and an urban homicide squad). Witness is ultimately a romantic thriller at heart — and my primary complaint is that its stock villains (sociopathically corrupt cops) are too predictably one-dimensional. However, what’s primarily at stake here are the lives of Haas and McGillis — and to that end, the film cleverly keeps us in suspense, all while bathing our senses in a uniquely pastoral late-20th-century setting.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lukas Haas as Samuel
    Witness Haas
  • Kelly McGillis as Rachel
    Witness McGillis
  • An authentic sense of culture and place
    Witness Barnraising
  • Joan Seale’s cinematography
    Witness Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a taut, well-crafted thriller.

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One Response to “Witness (1985)”

  1. Agreed. Must-see as a “well-crafted thriller”.

    I recall seeing this on the big screen when it was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival the first year I covered the festival as a reviewer. I recall being struck by its being a commercial crowd-pleaser with a difference…and that difference largely being what Weir brought to the film as director – it had additional sensitivity and style.

    The film works, as noted, as a ‘good show’ and it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It moves well, it looks great, and all of the performances are fine (even Ford’s – who doesn’t normally impress me as an actor; this is some of his best work, along with ‘Blade Runner’).

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