Embracing the Melodrama Part II #75: Witness (dir by Peter Weir)


Witness_movieLast night, I was lucky enough to watch Witness, a best picture nominee from 1985.

Taking place in Pennsylvania, Witness tells the story of what happens when an Amish widow named Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her 8 year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) decide to take a trip to visit Rachel’s sister.  Traveling on an Amtrak train, Samuel is amazed by his first view of the world outside of the close-knit and insular Amish society.  However, Samuel’s excitement soon turns to horror when they arrive in Philadelphia and he witnesses a man being brutally murdered.

Detective John Book (Harrison Ford, who received his first and, to date, only Oscar nomination for this film) is assigned to the case and arranges for Rachel and Samuel to stay with his sister.  John soon discovers that the murder was committed by two crooked cops, McFee (Danny Glover, who is pure evil in this film) and Ferguson (Angus MacInnes).  John goes to his superior officer, Chief Schaefer (Josef Sommer) with his evidence.  Soon after, McFee attempts to kill and seriously wounds John.  John realizes that Schaefer must be corrupt as well.

Book manages to drive Rachel and Samuel back to their farm in Lancaster County but, after dropping them off, he passes out from blood loss.  Knowing that sending John to the hospital would reveal Rachel and Samuel’s location to Schaefer, Rachel’s father (Jan Rubes) reluctantly allows John to stay at the farm.

And so, while McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer search for him, John temporarily pretends to be Amish.  He works in the fields.  He helps to build a barn.  He becomes something of a surrogate father to Samuel and he begins a forbidden flirtation with Rachel.

He also goes to town, where he watches as an idiotic local bullies the Amish, knowing that their religion forbids them from fighting back.  John responds by punching a bully, upsetting both the Amish and the a local store owner who yells that this will be terrible for the tourism.  In many ways, the scene is played for laughs and applause but there’s a very serious subtext here, as it would appear that the area’s main appeal to tourists is that you can humiliate the Amish without having to worry about any sort of retaliation.

While we, as viewers, definitely get some satisfaction from seeing John punch that jackass, it also allows Schaefer to discover where he and Rachel are hiding.  One morning, McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer pull up outside the farm.  They get out of their car and, as the sun rises and with beautiful green fields on either side of them, the three men hold up their shotguns and start to walk down the road….

Witness may technically be a cop film but it’s actually so much more.  It’s a character study of a deeply cynical man who finds himself changed by simple and innocent surroundings.  It’s a love story, with Ford and McGillis illuminating the screen with their chemistry.  It’s a celebration of community, with the harshness of Philadelphia being contrasted with life among the Amish.  It’s a film full of beautiful images and it also features an excellent performance from Harrison Ford.

It’s a good film.  I’m glad that I witnessed Witness.

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