Witness records an unexpected gathering of talent meeting at a notable moment in their careers; because of the fortuitous timing, the 1985 film feels like a time capsule from an earlier age. An unforced look at the Amish community contributes to the novelty and timeless quality of Witness, which—though ostensibly a crime thriller—plays more like a Western in its film-shorthand simplicity and inevitability of plotting.
Witness was Australian director Peter Weir's first Hollywood film; it was also a turning point in the career of Harrison Ford, who was known mostly for his popcorn-movie heroes: Indiana Jones and Han Solo. (Sylvester Stallone and David Cronenberg both passed on the project, though Cronenberg would eventually explore similar territory in A History of Violence.) Weir's unhurried, understated style proved ideal for a potentially ridiculous story and turned out to be a salve for Ford. Both men received Oscar nominations for their efforts.
Ford plays John Book, a Philadelphia police detective investigating the murder of another cop. The sole witness to the crime is Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), a young Amish boy travelling with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis). When the conspirators in the murder catch the scent of the witness, Book retreats with the child and his mother to their farm in Amish country. But violence has found the Lapps, and the threat remains: they will not be able to hide from it forever.
Weir ably illustrates the nature of Amish life on the border of mainstream America. A centerpiece sequence shows the satisfying day's work of a barn-raising, a communal exercise involving men, women, and children in an act of everyday generosity. We also see a horse and buggy tailgated by a tractor-trailer and ugly-American tourists treating the Amish like zoo animals. The "homemaking" role of women is apparent, but contented—a division of labor. However, Weir subtly hints at Rachel's social inferiority in an argument with her father (Jan Rubes) about her deepening relationship with Book (then again, he's right—gender aside, she is at least flirting with a violation of the Ordnung, or Amish "order").
As Book lays low, far from the familiar surroundings and people in his life, he begins to see himself in a new light. Dressed in the ill-fitting clothes of Rachel's late husband, Book looks foolish, but it's more than a joke: it's a signifier that he does not belong in this place. But the Amish's pastoral gentility gets to him, as his own violent and sexual impulses shame him. Weir, who supervised and contributed to script rewrites (the Oscar-winning screenplay is credited to William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace), expertly juxtaposes scenes to place urban assumptions in stark contrast to the peaceful way of the Amish.
Ford's characters have often displayed a capacity for ferocity, inflamed by loving protectiveness. Book sets this standard, and humanizes the conflict of peace versus the arguable necessity of violence. In one chilling scene, he promises eye-for-eye retribution to his urban enemy; in the very next scene, disrespect to his adoptive community will not stand. "It's not our way," insists Rachel's father. "But it's my way," says Book. And yet, in the violent action climax, famously inspired by High Noon, Book yells, "Enough! Enough!"
Witness isn't perfect, but it's close. A scene between Samuel and his grandfather deftly decries violence, though it certainly appears necessary to Book, if only in self-defense. The suggestion, by Josef Sommer's police chief, that the force is "like the Amish. We're a cult, too. A club. With our own rules" comes across as forced, as does most of the crime-story framing. But Weir knows enough not to try to make the criminals more than the irrational threat that triggers the story.
McGillis, Rubes, Haas, Alexander Godunov, and—in a small role—a young Viggo Mortensen capture the troubled serenity of the Amish community, and Haas makes an unreasonably adorable child-in-distress. Watch also for Danny Glover as "the bad man" and Patti LuPone as Book's sister. Maurice Jarre composed the score, with its noble Amish theme (terrific) and dated synth (unfortunate); John Seale did the Vermeer-inspired photography (both men were among the film's eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and wins for Editing and Screenplay). By the time Weir returns to the quiet, grass-lined road sloping up to the horizon, parting is sweet sorrow.
Paramount upgrades its previous edition of Witness with this "Special Collector's Edition." Even those who already own Witness will want to upgrade, as well, to own the excellent documentary "Between Two Worlds: The Making Of Witness" (word of warning: completists will want to hold on to the old disc, since the new disc does not duplicate the Peter Weir interview from 1999).
First of all, the transfer is clear, clean, and true, though the film grain can be a bit distracting in lower light. The anamorphic widescreen image shows significant improvement over the previous release, and Paramount has thoughtfully included both the stereo and 5.1 sound mixes (as well as subtitles).
The crown jewel of the extras is "Between Two Worlds: The Making Of Witness." DVD enthusiasts know by now that feature-length documentaries get diced up into pieces to circumvent the higher end of the union payscale for compensating talent. Such is the case with this piece, which runs approximately 64 minutes, but a "Play All" feature is offered for uninterrupted viewing. Separately, the five chapters are "Origins," "Amish Country," "The Artistic Process," "The Heart Of The Matter," and "The Denouement."
Participants include Peter Weir, Harrison Ford, producer Edward S. Feldman, Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas, Patti LuPone, Viggo Mortensen, and cinematographer John Seale, all recorded exclusively for this new documentary. "Between Two Worlds: The Making Of Witness" comes just short of definitive (Maurice Jarre's score and the film's popular and critical reception upon opening are never directly discussed), but it's still among the best "Making Of"s around, with discussion of how the project came to be; Weir's approach to the material; the film's appeal, then and now, to the talent involved; the process behind the film's most memorable scenes; and the artistic challenges of representing Amish life and staying true to a doomed romance within the context of a big studio picture.
Kudos to Paramount for supplying—in widescreen, no less—a deleted sequence (previously seen in the network TV airing). The sequence (4:10), which takes place in Elaine Book's home, is completed, so it looks as good as the rest of the film. Three 30-second TV spots and the theatrical trailer (1:30, in full-screen) are also included, as well as previews for Paramount Home Video's Airplane: The "Don't Call Me Shirley" Edition, Tommy Boy: The "Holy Schnikes" Edition, The John Wayne Collection, and MacGyver: The Complete First Season.
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