Too much to see: A critical review of “Witness” (1985)

It’s all about driving those numbers toward the blog, right? And you utilize SEOs and buzzwords and hot and topical topics. So I thought, why not write something about an eclipse? It seems like there have to have been a few eclipses in the history of fiction. Well, it turns out there’s an entire page on Wikipedia devoted to just that topic  (of course). So I ordered a few movies from the library and figured I’d review whatever came first. What came first was “Witness,” Peter Weir’s Amish country flavored thriller. Unless it’s a drama. Unless it’s a…well, we’ll get to that.

Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) has just become an Amish widow. On a trip to Philadelphia, her son, Samuel (Lukas Haas) sees a man being murdered in a train station bathroom. Samuel, the only witness of the crime, is interviewed by John Book (Harrison Ford), the police officer assigned to the case. Based on Samuel’s testimony, Book realizes that the murder was conducted by corrupt cops, and that he becomes their next target. Under attack, Book escorts the Lapps back to their Amish village before collapsing from a bullet wound.

The Lapps offer to house Book, disguised as a member of their community, while he figures out how to deal with the situation. Book, now in Amish garb, must learn to adjust as an outsider. He participates in a barn raising, grows closer emotionally to Rachel and explores his own violent nature.

The best element of “Witness” is, without a doubt, Weir’s delightful eye. There is an abundance of close-up shots: tight shots of faces, tight shots of hands, tight shots of wounds. Even shots that should be medium shots are interrupted by elements in the extreme foreground–a waterwheel, a glass of lemonade–forcing them into becoming tight shots. Accordingly, true wide shots, displaying the placid beauty of Pennsylvania farm country–Ford’s car wreck, the barn raising–feel like breaths of fresh air. This penchant for tight shots, combined with occasional use of low angles, gives the film a child’s-eye perspective in its more tender spots and a sense of urgency in its more tense moments.

So if the direction is the best, the worst thing about “Witness” is the tone, which has all the calm and sense of direction of a drunk jackrabbit. “Witness” is not based on a book, which is too bad, because that would explain why the movie lurches back and forth between so many genres. The film opens almost like an ominous period drama (oddly similar to Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs”) before switching to a white knuckle thriller–we move from Samuel observing a funeral to Samuel observing a train station to Samuel observing a murder. This is the best sequence.

However, as soon as Book is in the Amish village, it turns into a comic fish-out-of-water story, occasionally veering into erotica, and all the while a coming-of-age story for both Sam and Book, before finally crashing back into thriller at the end. Perhaps screenwriters William Kelley and Earl Wallace felt they needed all these genres to explore the film’s dichotomies–violence and pacifism, urban and traditional, romantic and traditional–but they didn’t. The violence is made all the more graphic since it bookends the tender humor and tasteful nudity in the middle and, for me at least, presents what the film could have been had it been a few minutes shorter and a bit tighter in focus. Oh well.

The acting is all fine, although nothing particularly stands out. Ford is fine as Book, but I think he was better playing that guy from “Blade Runner.” Everyone else is fine too, but they’re just fine. The soundtrack stands out, only not in a particularly good way. Maurice Jarre’s score is heavily reliant on synthesizers, which makes sense given it was 1985, but it doesn’t fit the film and probably wouldn’t work with a full orchestra anyway.

Oh, and, the eclipse connection? A solar eclipse prompted Weir to shoot some impromptu footage of folks in Amish costume observing the phenomena. However, something got scrambled in the editing room, and the footage was left out of the film. The only source of this info that I could find was that Wikipedia page. Hmm.

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