March 2024

Witness (1985)

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir


Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Josef Sommer, Danny Glover, Patti LuPone, Brent Jennings, Angus MacInnes


Witness is billed as a thriller or a crime drama, but that’s just the plot skeleton. What it’s really about at its core is love and longing, and about how the randomness of life can throw two people into contact long enough to fall in love, even if they can never truly be together.

We open in an Amish community in Pennsylvania in 1984. Recently widowed Rachael Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas) travel to Philadelphia to catch a train to Baltimore to visit her sister. In the train station restroom, the boy witnesses a murder, and is questioned by cop John Book (Harrison Ford). But when the boy fingers a decorated narcotics officer (Danny Glover) as the killer, and the police chief (Josef Sommer) also turns out to be involved, events quickly send an injured Book, with Rachael and Samuel in tow, back to the insular Amish world. There she nurses him back to health, and he hides out among them, trying to blend into a culture that for hundreds of years has stubbornly resisted modernization, using hooks instead of buttons, gas lanterns instead of electricity, and horses and carriages instead of cars. Along the way, John and Rachael fall in love, but the shadow hangs over everything that the day will come when he will return to the city, if the bad guys don’t find him first.

Witness has been described as a thriller, but while it has elements of that, it’s not the dominant aspect. At its heart is the forbidden love between John Book and Rachael Lapp; the thriller plotline exists less as the framework of the movie than the vehicle to bring these two together. Sure, there’s suspense over when the bad guys will track Book down, and it builds to a tense, exciting climactic showdown, but the majority of the moments viewers are most likely to remember from Witness have nothing to do with them. Extraordinary circumstances have brought John and Rachael into each other’s lives when normally they would never have met, but their worlds are too different for them to ever have a life together. The central theme of Witness is the longing between two people who are desperately in love with each other, but are unable or unwilling to bridge the gap that separates them.  In this sense, though the comparisons may not be immediately obvious, it is a spiritual cousin of sorts to such films as The Remains of the Day and Brokeback Mountain.

At the time, Harrison Ford had already established himself as an action hero as Han Solo and Indiana Jones; John Book represented something of a change of pace, something a little more low-key and subdued and heavier on actual acting than derring-do.  There are a couple bursts of Ford going into “action hero” mode, but they’re few and far between.  Kelly McGillis lived for weeks with an Amish widow and her children and took speech lessons to lend authenticity to her portrayal of an Amish woman, and it paid off. McGillis deserves credit not only for her solid performance and convincing depiction of an individual from the Amish culture, but also for being willing to deliberately appear plain and thoroughly unglamorous (something some actresses might have been either too self-conscious or too vain to do). Which is not to say that McGillis is unattractive here, but in both appearance and demeanor she’s far removed from her sexy flight instructor in her other best-known role from the ‘80s, 1986’s Top Gun. The chemistry between Ford and McGillis is at just the right temperature, not too hot and not too cold, subdued for the most part but never letting us forget the powerful attraction between them. In a few key scenes, the heat and never-quite-consummated longing between them is palpable. I have never particularly thought of Harrison Ford as an Oscar-worthy actor, but he was nominated for Witness, and out of his many performances this is probably the most deserving (Roger Ebert states in his review that ‘Harrison Ford has never given a better performance in a movie’). The elfin Lukas Haas is endearing as Samuel, though after the opening he doesn’t have that much to do. Other effective supporting performances come from Josef Sommer as the corrupt police chief, Jan Rubes as Samuel’s grandfather, conflicted between his affection for Rachael, Samuel, and Book and being bound by the rigid rules of Amish society, and Alexander Godunov as Daniel, an Amish man with an eye for Rachael who’s not thrilled by Book’s presence. A pre-Lethal Weapon Danny Glover shows he’s fully capable of playing a cold-blooded heavy. In smaller roles are Brent Jennings as Book’s partner, Patti LuPone as Book’s sister, and Angus MacInnes as the other baddie. Among the Amish, look for a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen.

Australian director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander) shows a strong sense of place and environment, with the Amish culture developed in such detail that it almost becomes another character in the movie. When Book takes part in a communal barn-raising, the movie has an almost documentary feel. It avoids easy routes of clichéd punch lines and easy payoffs for well-rounded characters and quiet, perceptive sequences brimming with sexual tension, and doesn’t cop out with an unrealistically “love conquers all” ending. The film also does a commendable job of depicting the Amish in such a way that lends them dignity and humanity rather than allowing the portrayal to venture into caricaturish or condescending territory.

With most of the crime thriller elements limited to the set-up and climax, Witness’ core is a perceptive, intelligent character study and a poignant and somewhat haunting forbidden love story. Its low-key tone and level of character development sets it apart from the dime-a-dozen shoot ‘em up thrillers and gives it distinction as a fine piece of filmmaking and storytelling.