A young Amish boy named Samuel witnesses a brutal murder in a bus station bathroom. Hardened Philadelphia police detective John Book is assigned to investigate. When he realizes the murder is part of a larger conspiracy involving people in his own department, Book gets wounded and flees to Amish country with Samuel and his recently widowed mother Rachel.
While recuperating, Book slowly begins to assimilate to the more plain and simple way of life his hosts live, and along the way finds himself falling in love with Rachel, despite the complications and consequences of such a forbidden situation.
This is one of the few films to really seriously focus on the Amish, and it's great. Yeah, the film isn't a perfect representation of their culture, but it is fairly accurate, but, more importantly, fairly respectful and sensible with how it treats things. It provides nice insight, and also gives a good look at how the Amish stick out as much in John's world as he does in theirs.
The film isn't fast paced, but that's actually not a problem. It takes it's time to do some world building, and develop the story and characters. Thankfully this is all interesting subject matter, too. There's romance, as I mentioned, but it's handled in a not very Hollywood way, which is a breath of fresh air. The film is quite serious, but it does have a few needed moments of levity here and there.
Harrison Ford is great here. This marked a change for him as he had, until this point, primarily spent his time either in sci-fi action romps, or as Indiana Jones. Here he is simply in a straight drama, and he delivers a quietly affecting performance. Lukas Haas is also good as the young Samuel, but the real jewel is Kelly McGillis as Rachel. She's a solemn, traditional woman, but her curiosity gets the best of her the more she spends time around the "Englishman". It's also cool seeing Viggo Mottensen in his brief big screen debut.
Featuring strong writing and direction, an interesting and fitting score from Maurice Jarre that's sometimes really otherworldly, and some good cinematography, this is a wonderful movie with a great story that I highly recommend.
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 na´ve 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.
The detective, played perfectly by Ford, is thrown into a simple world and starts to rediscover the innocence that he has been working all these years to protect.
The acting in the flick is excellent and the story moves along well.
It is also a fascinating look into the world of the Amish.