|Witness is a story full of stark contrasts -- rural vs. city, pacifism vs. violence, simplicity vs. sophistication -- yet it would be wrong to say that at any point the film comes down strongly on one side or another. There is a tendency to see it as romanticizing the Amish community it depicts as something holy and almost otherworldly in its peaceful "perfection," especially in contrast to the speed and violence of life in its counterpoint, Philadelphia, but to do so would be to miss the point.|
Witness is a film about balance, one that tries to find and laud the space between the extremes. It is a thriller, but it is also a love story about people who come from vastly different worlds, and I think one of the reasons many people think about the film so fondly and can watch it so many times is because you get the real sense that the two people in the love story come out at the end better people for having been involved with each other, even if it may be impossible for them to be together.
The film starts off in Amish country in rural Pennsylvania, where a young man has recently died. His widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), takes her young son, Samuel (Lukas Haas), into the city to catch a train to see her sister in Baltimore. While at the train station, Samuel witnesses a ghastly murder in the men's restroom. They are taken into police custody because Samuel is the only material witness to the homicide. Enter John Book (Harrison Ford in a particularly good performance), a hardened police detective who realizes that he is in over his head when he discovers that the murder implicates officers in the police department. He is almost killed, and is thus forced to return Rachel and Samuel to their distant community because the killers will be coming after them, too.
At this point, the film switches gears entirely, as Book must hide out in the Amish community because he has virtually no one to trust in the police department. His big-city ways are tested by the quiet simplicity of the Amish -- he learns to milk cows at five in the morning and rekindles a long-dormant love of carpentry. At the same time, Rachel finds herself more and more fascinated by this strange, otherworldly man, and they develop a palpable attraction, one that is based as much on physical connection as it is on the mystery of people who come from entirely different walks of life, but feel a spark of connection. Most of Witness is romantic build-up, which makes their relationship feel all the more powerful, even if we know deep inside that it is ultimately in vain.
Witness was the American filmmaking debut of Peter Weir, who had been directing films in various genres in Australia since the early 1970s. He had already long since proved his cinematic dexterity, illustrating a poetic grasp of time and place in the haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) as surely as he had shown his feel for action and intrigue in The Year of Living Dangerously (1983). Weir was a perfect choice for Witness, as he captures the idyllic essence of the rural community without turning it into a postcard cliche. The beautiful long shots of undulating waves of grass and the cheery sequence in which the Amish community rallies together to raise a barn suggest a deep affinity for their purposefully archaic way of life, yet Weir contrasts such moments with suggestions of repression and lost possibilities. Samuel's wide-eyed wonder at the architecture in the train station reminds us of all that he is missing in his restricted community, even if such progress comes with a heavy price.
That price, the film suggests, is violence, something that has become a way of life for John Book, yet is strictly verboten in the Amish community. The Amish pacifism is certainly noble and idealistic, but Witness makes it clear that there are limits to pacifism when the corrupt officers show up with shotguns and malicious intent. At that point, violence must be met with violence; there is no alternative.
Yet, there is another layer to this development, one not often commented on, which is the fact that the arrival of the corrupt officers and the violence they bring is initiated by Book's own violence. The only reason they are able to track him down is because Book responds violently to a group of tourists who harass the Amish people in town, something that finally pushes him over the edge. Thus, the film shows a cycle, in which violence begets more violence. While the Amish way of life stands in contrast to such behavior, it is ultimately an ineffective intervention because the cycle is already too strong. Their standing apart from the rest of country protects their small numbers, but does little else.
In this sense, Witness is a fascinating film to watch, particularly in its socio-historical context as a product of the Reagan decade, which the same year produced the brutally jingonistic Rambo: First Blood Part II. Yet, at its heart, Witness is really a simple love story wrapped in the guise of a thriller, which allows it to appeal to multiple audiences and has guaranteed its longevity in many people's hearts and minds.
Copyright © 2005 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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