Directed by Peter Weir
Witness is a romance-thriller that prioritizes the romance. When an Amish boy visiting Philadelphia witnesses a murder, police officer John Book (Harrison Ford) must keep the boy around to ID the killer. Soon they discover that the killer is another cop, McFee (Danny Glover), and Book accompanies the boy and his mother back to Amish country to hide out for a while.
In between the murder and the inevitable clash between the bad guys and the good at the end of the film, Witness tracks the imminent romance between Book and the boy’s mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis). It’s one of those stories so beholden to the love story that you can’t help but imagine the movie is really glossing over the details of what it’s like to be Amish.
It might be something like cultural appropriation because the details of Rachel’s Amish life are mostly replaceable within the story. All that matters is that the Amish don’t live like Book does. His life is foreign to them and vice versa, but soon he begins to live the way they do, to see life through their eyes. It’s the same kind of fish out of water story you see in Dances With Wolves.
It’s during these moments that the story all but forgets the crime which kickstarted the plot. The boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas) witnesses a murder, identifies the man as someone we don’t know but who is important within the community, and soon Book realizes that they are in danger. McFee, it seems, is in bed with Book’s own commanding officer.
We never really know what’s going on, other than the bad guys could be everywhere. In the end they will descend on the Amish farm for a climactic shootout that ends how you expect, with the good guys pushing on, and the villain getting what’s coming. It’s a clear, simple conflict that never bothers to analyze what’s really going on. Was police corruption just kind of the norm at this time?
That probably makes the movie better, even if it all feels a little silly. The action scenes are well put together, and Witness appeals to our more primal instincts as a movie audience. There’s sex, violence and that’s about it. It’s a movie that never pretends to be about anything more than these conventional thrills, and I’m betting that if it tried to do more, it wouldn’t work.
Witness isn’t quite a B movie, but it’s close. It’s a clean, straightforward script that still hinges on moments of absurd cliche or contrived conflict. Since we know the bad guys have to track down Book and the kid eventually, we’re just waiting for it to happen while things appear to be going well. How does it happen? Well some drunk tourists push an ice cream cone into the face of Daniel, another Amish man for whom Book has developed the requisite respect, and Book loses his mind, delivering a beatdown to defend his new friend’s honor. This is what attracts police suspicion and brings the bad guys in.
It’s fine, but it has much less to do with the characters than narrative obligations.
Witness would be the first in a series of similar films with Harrison Ford as the everyman hero. There’s Air Force One, The Fugitive, Frantic, Presumed Innocent, Patriot Games and others. Just look at these movie posters…
It’s usually dark, smothered in patriotic colors, and Harrison Ford is either annoyed or panicked. I guess this would just be the second stage of his career following the adventure and sci-fi fi movies of his acting youth, from Star Wars to Indiana Jones.
As for director Peter Weir, he’s an Australian filmmaker who has made movies about outsiders, and this fits. He made The Cars That Ate Paris about a town that literally kills the people who pass through. There’s The Plumber, a psychological horror film about an intellectual and a brute, two people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds. There’s even The Truman Show, a film about a fictional community which the movie’s protagonist will soon discover is a lie.
The films of his that I’ve seen seem concerned with community and the penetration of that community or culture by an outsider. Usually our protagonist is the person new to that environment, whether entering or leaving it. They are the person who has the most to learn about the world at large, and soon they will learn it by seeing the world through the eyes of a new community.
Up Next: Dinner With Friends (2001), The Hangman (1959), The Salesman (2016)