Witness (1985)

Dir. Peter Weir. Starring Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Lukas Haas

The line between “wants to make you feel this” and “doesn’t make you feel much of anything” is one of the most difficult and most subtle lines to walk in a movie. Go too far to the former, and the viewer is alienated by the movie’s bossiness; go too far towards the latter and the movie is impotent. Witness is uncommonly good at letting the viewer work out what to feel, understated and immaculately built. This is a thriller which is confident enough in its storyline to let Harrison Ford remind all of us about his carpentry background during a five-minute barn building scene. This is a love story without love, in which characters are bold enough to make it clear that they want each other but realize that they must hold back or commit a grave social error. This is a violent story which turns on a murder in a train station bathroom witnessed by the most innocent of children; a man’s throat is cut in front of him, and though the murder is hardly gory, it is shocking because we see it through Samuel’s (Haas) eyes. Witness is curious about what it means to be innocent, not merely of a crime, but innocent at heart. It wonders about whether or not such a quality is desirable, or if it is doomed to fail if placed against a more worldly perspective.

John Book (Ford), a Philadelphia police officer, does not have much time for innocence in his day job. Aside from the problem of being too credulous in the line of duty, it’s quickly proved that trusting someone too much might get him killed. Book and his partner, Carter (Brent Jennings), are put on the scene when another Philadelphia police officer is killed, and with Samuel’s keen eye behind him, Book makes an incredible discovery: the murderer is not some hoodlum in their files, but a man named McFee (Danny Glover), a fellow cop who works primarily in narcotics. Book makes the mistake of speaking to his superior, Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), about the positive ID and about his own hypothesis for a motive. McFee was in charge of a raid in which evidence—materiel for the making of amphetamines—disappeared. Book assumes that McFee is in charge of this operation himself, and it is a decidedly innocent guess. McFee surprises Book in a parking garage, even manages to send a bullet through Book’s side, but cannot kill him. It is fortunate for Book that the bullet went through him, because his immediate run to Amish country with the Lapps in tow would have been his final run otherwise; milk poultices would not have saved him. Never again will Book be so easy to fool, which makes puts him at odds with the Amish who are alternately hiding him and tolerating him as he recuperates.

Witness deconstructs the thriller by making the typical elements of the genre seem gauche or actively evil. Beginning with the bathroom murder, which assumes an especially grisly character, the fodder for years of nightmares, the movie continues to make commonplace thriller activities look tawdry when Book and Carter take the Lapps to a girlie bar to pick up a suspect. Samuel is in the car while the cops retrieve their suspect, but Rachel’s (McGillis) face says it all: what are we doing here? In a Scorsese movie, we wouldn’t blink at seeing such a place, or seeing four or five of them. Placing Rachel there makes the existence of such a business embarrassing; later on, Book’s sister, Elaine (Patti LuPone, escaped from Broadway) tells him that she’s got a man over and that it makes her uncomfortable to have an Amish mother and son hiding there. (You weren’t concerned about having a man over while your own kids were home? Book asks. He’s got a moralizing streak in him that, of all people, Rachel manages to puncture later on.) Beyond this sort of institutionalized fornication, which the movie doesn’t mess with very much, the key weapon of the thriller is turned into a hateful object. Book’s revolver is an object of fascination for Samuel, as guns often are for little boys for reasons that I think go beyond the guns themselves. Book is not averse to showing the child how it works, although he is adamant on the subject of bullets; the gun is harmless enough without the bullets, he tells the boy, but you must never touch it if it’s loaded. But the Amish adults are horrified by the presence of a gun in their community. Rachel holds it the way most of us would hold a dirty diaper and keeps it well hidden. (The bullets end up in the flour, which makes for a solid little sight gag.) Eli (Jan Rubes) confronts his grandson about violence directly later on. “What you take into your hands, you take into your heart,” Eli warns Samuel. You say that you would be willing to kill a bad man, but how are you to judge such a person? Death is for God to mete out; it is the height of hubris to decide that you should have that power yourself. In a few words, in a simply shot scene, Witness eloquently sums up the potential immoralities of other thrillers. So many of them use violence quickly and primarily, without giving thought to other ways to resolve conflict; so many of them see a loaded gun as the only way to restore order. But, Eli tells Samuel, there is never only one way. It is an incredibly brave choice for a movie like this to make, and it pays off in terms of visual storytelling: it turns two men armed with shotguns, which one can run into a few times a night between 8:00 and 11:00, into a frightening and ugly sight indeed.

If there’s any action star who could play John Book, in unfamiliar surroundings and without his revolver in hand, it’s the guy who made Han Solo and Indiana Jones household names. Neither Solo nor Indy need a gun (even if the former likes to carry a blaster), and the two of them seem most likely to get out of messes with a weird combination of risk-taking, know-how, and physical hardiness. For other action heroes, killing a man with corn would be a copout; Sly Stallone or Clint Eastwood would never stoop to something so underhanded or unglamorous. With Ford on hand, though, it’s fitting; this is something Indiana Jones would do if he were in trouble in Act 3 of Indiana Jones and the Silo of Necromancy. Watching him as an underdog is right as well. Aside from the three-on-one fight he gets himself into—where he overcomes odds which seem insuperable, compared to the celerity with which a different muscly hero would dispose of those henchmen—he spends an awful lot of the movie being too weak to drive straight, making sotto voce phone calls under a straight-brimmed hat, and being woken up at 4:30 to milk the cows. The carpentry bit is an inside joke with the audience, sure, but it’s also the kind of thing that Charles Bronson wouldn’t make time for. Scenes with McGillis early on cement the chemistry between the two actors, and an awful lot of it relies on Ford’s crooked smile charm. (There’s a moment before the barn raising happens where the two of them catch each other’s eye; Rachel has a personal, intimate smile for Book, who returns it with that classic Ford “shucks, here I go” look. It’s the kind of silent romance that’s like a ’20s time capsule.) Rachel, totally serious, tells Book that she doesn’t want Samuel associated with guns or with the whacking that goes with them. “Whacking?” Book says, and from the look on his face you’d think Rachel had never heard of the Millennium Falcon and the Kessel run. McGillis, in an early role for her, is also excellent. In a role that could easily have been condescending, McGillis finds Rachel’s backbone over and over again while expanding her character. She may not care for Book’s gun, but she stands nude in front of him when he looks for her. She is clear about her expectations for Samuel’s Amish upbringing at the same time that she wonders about her place with her people, and it never feels like a contradiction. McGillis expresses that what someone wants is fundamentally different than what rules they intend to live by.

Ten years earlier, Weir made the unimpeachable classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, a movie which is irrevocably intertwined with the land. The march of four girls to the weird summit of Hanging Rock is as much about the creek, the high grass, and the narrow pathways between rock faces as it is about Miranda and her classmates. In Witness, Weir captures the way that wind moves through the tall green grass of the Pennsylvania countryside as if there were some spirit living there; there are rolling hills and big skies which seem ready to live in as opposed to some conquerable challenge. Although one often sees the West as the primary beneficiary of this kind of filmmaking, Weir finds the humility in the place and uses it to characterize the people. The Amish refuse buttons because they evince too much sinful pride; a great mountain or a thundering waterfall would be similarly indecent. Sunny days and stormy nights over beautiful bright fields are plenty for them.

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