In recent years the thriller genre has become so closely hybridised with action that we expect almost every thriller to be high-octane, ass-kicking entertainment. Whether it's the ultra-macho shootout in Michael Mann's Heat or the second unit work on the Bourne series, when we heard the word 'thriller' we expect everything to be turned up to 11, and if it doesn't feel ridiculous then we haven't got our money's worth.
But the thriller genre is a malleable beast, and there is potential even in the most aggressive and edgy storylines for understated character development and old-fashioned, slow-burning suspense. Witness is a film which demonstrates this with energy and intelligence to spare, and it remains one of Peter Weir's finest films.
Over a career lasting over 35 years, Weir has earned himself a reputation as a meticulous craftsman of the cinema. Like Stanley Kubrick he has rarely, if ever, approached the same subject or period twice, and what unites all his works is the impeccable level of craft that goes into making them. You really get the sense watching Witness that this was a labour of love for the director, something he cared about very closely. Considering that he only came to make it after funding for The Mosquito Coast fell through, it is testament to his ability and determination that he didn't simply soft-peddle to get it over with.
Witness is a film which showcases Weir's mastery as a storyteller. The thriller elements are introduced seamlessly and convincingly, but they never become so complicated that they overwhelm the human story at the centre. The narcotics plot point is brought in so that it makes sense for McFee to have done what he did, and the conspiracy elements involving police corruption are introduced in a matter-of-fact manner. The film never feels the need to get bogged down in procedure, because Weir knows that the real intrigue lies in the innocent people caught up in the web rather than the structure of the web itself.
Weir directs the film in an unusually painterly way, with long wide takes which capture the slow pace of Amish life. Much like Barry Lyndon, we are forced to slow down and accept the often languorous pace at which events unfold, so that it doesn't feel like the lives of the characters are being crowbarred into a generic plot. This is story-telling rather than plot-handling, and like all good storytellers Weir both takes his time and knows when he has overstayed his welcome; despite the leisurely pace, it doesn't feel like a two-hour film.
Further evidence of Weir putting characters and story before the demands of a genre are found in the treatment of the culture clash. It would be very easy for Witness to fall into the trap of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by having Harrison Ford constantly commenting in the differences in cultures for ill-founded comic effect. Alternatively it could have gone down the route of A Stranger Among Us, Sidney Lumet's misguided thriller in which Melanie Griffith tracks down a murderer by pretending to be Jewish, adopting every conceivable stereotype in a bid to blend in.
While its depiction of the Amish lifestyle may not be entirely accurate, it is respectful and very even-handed towards both sides. The film is not looking to portray them as sheltered fundamentalists who are entirely backward or too naďve to function as human beings. But neither does Witness shy away from pointing out the flaws with the Amish religion, or at least demonstrating the downsides to such a particular way of life. The society in which Rachel raises Samuel is very patriarchal, with a man's worth being judged by his capacity for hard work, and there is frequent talk in the latter parts of "shunning" and the dire consequences of this. The film utilises the Amish language (either High German or Pennsylvania Dutch) as an alienating device, much like Alfred Hitchcock did in The Lady Vanishes.
The title of Witness reflects the film's balance and contrast between the spiritual and the temporal, referring to both the act of bearing witness to God's work and testifying in a criminal court. Harrison Ford's character is called John Book - an inversion of the Book of John, also known as John's Gospel. In protecting Samuel from the police who wish to silence him, Book is bearing witness both by observing God's work through the Amish and by doing God's duty in protecting those who cannot protect themselves.
Witness approaches spirituality in a mature and considered fashion which is unusually nuanced for Hollywood. You won't find any fire-and-brimstone preachers in this neck of the woods, let alone any of the hysterical wailing present in Carrie. Most of the religious scenes in the film revolve around quiet devotion and the silence of saying one's prayers, and even when things get rather Old Testament, the points aren't hammered home with un-Christian relish.
This subtle examination of spirituality allows an accompanying theme to be approached with equal reserve and intelligence. For Witness is also about the limits of authority, whether the police or outsiders who think they can make the rules because they carry guns. Being the only man with a gun for many miles, you would think Book would quickly impose himself on the community - but instead he is forced to obey the rules and turn in his weapon. This is further reflected in the passive resistance of the Amish when they are threatened by Book's superior - a scene which shows that authority comes not merely from power, but respect and acceptance.
The Biblical elements of Witness also emerge in the theme of forbidden fruit and the repression of Rachel's sexuality. Kelly McGillis has a recurring trait to her performance, giving a slight smile whenever she glances at Book. This slight smile reflects her inability to open up and acknowledge her womanhood at the cost of her faith. Her passionate kiss with Book in the field is counterpointed by an earlier scene where Book catches her bathing: minutes pass with the characters just looking at each other, both fearful of the consequences of giving in to temptation.
Much of the film is about the loss of innocence, whether in Samuel witnessing the murder, Rachel's love for John, or the community being shaken by John's presence and his misguided attempts at delivering justice through violence. After he beats up a group of tourists who were mocking the Amish, one of the elderly locals tells Rachel to rein him in, saying he is "not good for the tourist trade!". The loss of innocence is further reflected in Book's colleagues, who have drifted into narcotics by spending too long on the beat. There are hints of The French Connection about Paul, who like Gene Hackman has become more impulsive and reckless in pursing what he wants.
Witness also has a beautifully understated soundtrack. Maurice Jarre, who won a BAFTA for his work, creates a score with the epic sweep of his work with David Lean but with modern trappings courtesy of Vangelis-like synthesisers. There is a recurring theme of one ethereal note being sustained during moments of revelation, such as Samuel recognising McFee from the photo in the trophy cabinet. It's a very effective means of bringing together the old and the new in the story.
Witness is a great film and a great piece of storytelling. Harrison Ford is terrific as John Book, bringing understatement and gravitas to a role which demonstrates his talent and range as an actor. McGillis is a great match as Rachel, and Danny Glover is as menacing here as he is in The Colour Purple. It isn't perfect, being a little too slow at times, and the final confrontation between John and Paul threatens to become silly. But it remains one of Peter Weir's finest achievements and proof that thrills don't always have to come from shouting and rapid editing.