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This is one of those movies whose virtues and subtleties become more
and more apparent with subsequent viewings. The crime story is nothing
more than a pretense - a "MacGuffin", in Hitchcock's phrase - on which
to hang this sensitive and insightful story of the conflict between
modernity and the culture of the Amish, which is portrayed here with
admiring respect and not a hint of condescension.
Harrison Ford's portrayal of John Book is perhaps his finest work on screen so far. In particular, Book's struggle to suppress his rising attraction for Rachel, and his tormented realization that a relationship between them is not possible, is achingly portrayed. Ford's effort is well-matched by Kelly McGillis, whose beauty here is almost breathtaking. The erotic interplay between them, because it is unconsummated, radiates an almost painful tension, and the easily lampooned "running through the field" scene - because it has been led up to so convincingly - is almost heartbreaking. The character of Eli Lapp, wonderfully played by Jan Rubes, is richly multifaceted. His suspicion of the "English" outsider and his anger at Rachel's attraction to him, is surmounted by an underlying humanity. His parting words to Book, "You be careful out there among them English," are moving testimony to his acceptance of him. His stern yet loving dialogue to his grandson about renouncing hatred and violence is a treasured moment.
Both direction and cinematography are splendid. The simplicity of Amish interiors is shot in a way that makes its austerity almost beautiful, and the barnraising scene is an exercise in cinematic lyricism.
It would be easy to fault the movie for the facile scene in which the punks taunting of Book's newfound friends and protectors drives him over the edge (Eli: "It's not our way, Book" / Book: "No, but it's MY way."), but his gift to the young thug of a bloody nose is mighty satisfying to behold.
My one criticism is with the music; certainly not with the venerable Maurice Jarre's score itself, but with its paltry synthesized realization. They should have found the money to spring for a full orchestra.
In short, a highly satisfying, richly themed, and multifaceted film which is well worth watching.
You want to know how to make a successful movie? Just look here. You
have tremendous suspense, a top-flight popular actor as the hero, a
touching romance story, plenty of action, a different kind of setting
than normal, people you care about, nice photography, very moral and
very immoral people, a little humor.....I mean, this is how it's done.
I also appreciated seeing Amish people (of which I am not) portrayed in a better light than secular Hollywood usually puts them. I also liked the wholesome female lead Kelly McGillis (although she was the only Amish character out of character, a bit loose than what you would ever find) and who didn't think young Lukas Haas was the cutest kid they ever saw on film?
Harrison Ford gives a typical solid performance as John Book, a Philadelphia detective who winds up protecting the young boy ("Samuel Lapp"), his mom (McGillis as "Rachel Lapp") and others against crooked cops (Hollywood's favorite kind). Along the way, he is near-fatally shot and winds up being cared for and living in the Amish community in which the Lapps reside. During that time, we also have the blossoming romance between the two leads and then a dramatic shootout at the end when the cops find out where "Book" is staying.
There are many memorable scenes in this movie, from the boy hiding in the bathroom stall as a murder takes place; Ford slugging some goon who was making fun of the Amish; Ford and McGillis dancing in the hayloft to an old rock 'n roll tune; the Amish lifestyles and the raising of the barn; and the suspenseful ending.
This is a great stuff: one of the best crime stories of the "modern age" and one of the few "R-rated" films that reached this high a popularity.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It all starts off when a beautiful Amish widow takes her little son
Samuel from their home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to visit her
sister in Baltimore and try to get over her grief...
While passing through Philadelphia, and on entering alone a men's restroom in a train station, Samuel glances up to see two men advancing with unmistakable menace toward a young man... He caught sight of the face of one of the two attackers who killed him...
As the plot becomes more intricate, and through a series of interesting events, detective John Book finds himself forced to protect the shy eight-year-old boy and his helpless mother... He disappears for some days in the Amish Country...
Harrison Ford stars as a fugitive cop who is initially unwelcome in a community he knows a little about... He tries to learn the importance of family and community, the philosophy of brotherhood and non-resistance... He becomes involved in a case that will essentially change his human perceptions... And later, he finds himself falling in love with a sensitive young woman...
Kelly McGillis is captivating as Rachel, a woman who feels a shadow of confusion crossing her mind... She stares at the honest cop, realizing the price he's paid in returning them to safety...
In one scene she catches him watching her bath... She hesitates for a moment, but in that precise moment she makes a choice... Slowly she turns to face him, topless, without shame... For a moment she attempts a tender effort to become, for an instant, a woman of his world...
In another scene we see her playing the charade of her life... Bound by duty, but tempted by desire, she leaves her white cap - symbol of her identity - on the table, and surrenders to a passion, that makes her sensual nature say it all...
Lukas Haas is very fine as the cute kid in the black coat and hat... He slowly raises his hand to point at the black and white photograph... This nice boy remains untouched by the violence interposed into his peaceful world...
Jan Rubes is believable as Rachel's father-in-law Eli... He is torn by conflicts between faith, discipline, dedication and humility... He tries his best to protect what's left of his family from the pressures of the outside world... It's pretty clear he doesn't like this Englishman wearing the clothes of his faith... For him his daughter-in-law has brought fear to his house... and now she is dancing to English music!
Alexander Godunov brings a solid performance to the role of Daniel, Rachel's discarded suitor... It's no surprise that he wants the disappearance of the policeman... Book's tempting presence will only weak his chance with Rachel... In one remarkable scene and on a road running parallel to the train track, he urges his horse almost to the gallop as he attempts to keep pace with the train...
It is quite interesting to see Danny Glover as a crooked cop, who's corrupt and evil... But the heart of the movie is a study of the Pennsylvania Amish through the eyes of an outsider suddenly introduced into their life... Peter Weir tries to paint a realistic portrait of the Amish who are best known for their severely 'plain clothing' and their 'non-conformed' way of life... The Amish also avoid telephones and electric lights and drive horses and buggies rather than cars...
Weir delivers a powerful and romantic story, an engaging film of different style, mixing two different cultures, the simplicity of the Amish lifestyle with the urban culture and fashion... The music and cinematography work beautifully to impart all the emotions of the characters...
'Witness' (won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Original Screenplay. Nominations for Best Actor (Ford), Art Direction, Cinematography, Director, Score and Best Picture..) is quiet provoking.. thrilling and entertaining.. I highly recommend it..
If you look carefully, you'll spot Viggo Mortensen in his screen debut.. as Moses Hochleitner, Daniel's little brother...
An earlier comment on the site suggests that the film is flawed because
Amish boy, coming from a secure, peaceful environment, would not be able
witness a scene of brutality without becoming utterly traumatised.
Far from being a flaw, I believe this is a key statement of the theme of the film - that the close, peaceful and loving upbringing he has enjoyed provide the boy with an emotional strength and resilience that allows him to recognise evil and reject it. Later that same environment will provide the embittered and emotionally scarred with a temporary oasis where he can in part recover from the loveless violence of his own life.
Contrast the failure of community in the vast and soulless terminal building, where the first scene is set, where every one is isolated by the indifference and aggression of their fellow travellers, with the co-operative endeavour of the justly famous barn raising scene, where even the outsider is welcomed and included in an act of joint creation.
I just recently watched this movie in my Development of Film class. We're
studying the Social Drama. Last week we watched "Fury" with Spencer
so this week we watched a contemporary film in the genre. I have to give
up for Peter Weir! He did a spectacular job!
The premise is intriguing. A young Amish boy goes to the bathroom in a train station and witnesses a bloody murder. Enter Philadelphia cop John Book (Harrison Ford). Now, we had several discussions about this film and I started to realize some flaws that didn't exactly come clear in my mind at the time. First of all, a little innocent Amish boy isn't going to witness something that grisly and recover that well. Living in an Amish environment, he probably doesn't even know the definition of the word "violence." So the boy wouldn't be able to return to his native environment and go on with his life like usual. He'd keep having nightmares and flashbacks. He'd be traumatized 'til the day he dies! However, I have to note Lukas Haas delivered a terrific performance. I'm not sure how much appraise he got for this moderately thankless role. For a boy of his age to take on a role like that, I have to commend him. Lukas, in recent years, has concentrated on more independent works like "Boys" with Wynona Ryder and the underrated "johns" with David Arquette, in which he plays a gay prostitute. He's still a fine actor, and I'm impressed to see his advancement to more grown-up roles, but many probably forgot about him. So I think he should be remembered for that little role, even to this day. But typical Hollywood, Harrison Ford agrees to do a film--he's the star! And the whole subplot with the little boy gets pushed aside. Now, Harrison was terrific in this movie--probably why I wasn't bothered too much about him being the center of attention--and I think he's a very underrated actor (sure he's widely known, but recognize him more as a macho action hero than an actor), but I think if Weir decided to expand that subplot it would've made a more interesting film.
Kelly McGillis is convincing as the boy's Amish mother, who gets swept away by Book. Even as an Amish woman, I think she looked beautiful. I haven't exactly been traveling around Amish country, but I don't know how often you would find an Amish woman that beautiful. Plus, that scene where she's sponge-bathing topless--Wow! That brings me to another point. I like how Weir never actually decided to put a sex scene to demonstrate the relationship between her and Book. In the aforementioned sponge-bathing scene, there's a long period where they just stare at each other and there's absolutely no dialogue! I found that very impressive. It's a very erotic scene, without them actually having to jump into bed together. That's something you rarely see in the movies. The sexual tension between the two characters is simply impressed by their mannerisms. Danny Glover is convincingly frightening as the villain. Also look for an early performance by Viggo Mortensen. He doesn't have many--in fact, I don't if he has any--speaking parts, but he's in quite a few scenes.
There's a lot of good fish-out-of-water comedy when the city-born Book tries to learn the ways of the Amish. I was cracking up when Harrison puts on the Amish garb, with the bottom of his pants above his ankles. That's a picture worth a thousand words. Weir is fascinated by clashes in cultures, and it's highly evident in many scenes from this movie. Those scenes provide some good comic relief. This may be considered typical Hollywood, but I loved the scene where Harrison Ford gets out of the chariot (now as one of the Amish) to beat the crap out of one of the thugs who was giving them trouble. That was an awesome scene! Weir also captures some beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, shots of the scenery. The music is great too, especially in the barn-raising scene. The ending is well-done, and I liked how it wasn't one of those walk-into-the-sunset conclusions. I don't want to give anything away, but that was one of the non-typical Hollywood elements of the film.
Despite its now-discovered flaws, I still love this movie and wouldn't mind watching it on many repeat viewings. It's just a fascinating, wonderfully made piece of cinema that will hold its place in the history of celluloid. I urge you to witness this triumphant work!
My score: 9 (out of 10)
I would like to clear up a couple of comments made by movieguy1021, who
"One thing I didn't understand is how come everyone seemed to use such strong accents yet they've been living in America for a long time."
Most Amish communities mainly speak Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German, hence the accents in the film. Amish children learn English in school.
"Also, although I may not be the end-all, be-all of Amish knowledge, it seems like for people so strict in their rules, they broke them easily. They didn't seem to object to riding in trains or cars, or even using technology."
The Amish accept some forms of modernisation as long as it is not deemed disruptive to their social structure. Some forms of primitive technology are accepted in their community, such as devices that assist with milking cows. Likewise they accept rides in cars, but members of the community cannot own them.
Won Oscars for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and Best Editing. Nominated for five more Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor, Harrison Ford, and Best Director Peter Weir. Weir Directed the 'The Year of Living Dangerously', and 'The Truman Show'. After seeing it maybe 10 times, I find it is one of those infrequent stories that still draws my attention. This places it in the company of pictures like 'The Godfather', and some others which stand the test of repeat viewings over time. Kelly McGillis is the film's intelligent and talented secret weapon. Her performance makes me wonder where she is these days. She is an Amish widow from a rural Amish community. On a trip to the city her little boy witnesses a murder in the restroom of a train station. Police investigator Harrison Ford finds himself targeted along with the boy by corrupt cops in his unit that did the murder. He is hurt in a shootout and hides with the Amish. He wears Amish clothes, and labors with the men of the community as he rebuilds his strength. An attraction naturally develops between the McGillis and Ford charactors. The chemistry is remarkably intelligent, and authentically portrayed. Their worlds are seperated by a cultural gulf. They are drawn by each other, and respect one another. The contrasts are drawn clearly between the quaint honesty and almost dreamlike serenity of the Amish, and the horrible violence intruding upon them from the outside world. The resolution of the story should not be given away to someone who has not seen the movie. This film is a different kind of thriller in more ways than one. It's makers kept it intelligent, instead of resorting to another pyrotechnic joyride. -Robert Hartman-
This beautiful love story contrasts corruption with goodness.
Harrison Ford underplays his role so well it is scandalous his Hollywood buddies must have laughed their arses off at him taking this role what some cop living with Amish? Sounds lame right, until all the Oscar nom's start pouring in But he is nothing short of brilliant as Detective John Book. I love the scene when he gets that old car-radio working, that old heap of junk in a barn that opens up his love with Rachel, and she dances and sings for the first time in her life.
It is beautifully written, the screenplay is flawless, the editing is flawless. The pacing is flawless but won't appeal to those who want car-chases and guns going off all over the place, and a beer and a hot-dog for dinner ... uh you know who I mean
This film gives a gentle insight into the simple sweetness of Amish life. Us "sophisticates" with our frequent-flyers and cell phones and iPods and laptops and instant everything we all may be missing something they already found
A wonderfully inspirational and deeply satisfying film.
'Witness' is about a guy who is a total product of the big city - he's a
tough cop, he relies on cars, phones, and guns - who hides at an Amish farm
to prevent a boy (the witness) and himself from being found by the killers.
The film is less about Harrison Ford learning to live among the Amish as it is the Amish learning to live with Ford. He is a man who at first glance has no matching ideals. The film is fantastic on that level, especially thanks to Peter Weir's direction, who brilliantly shows Ford gradually becoming accepted by the Amish men.
There is very little dialogue among the characters, and Rachel (McGillis) talks even less, not because she doesn't have anything to say, but because Amish rules of life don't seem to allow her to. They are presented as a quiet people, so McGillis has the difficult task of making Rachel speak without dialogue, and she does it well, which carries over to Ford (he got an Oscar nomination, she didn't).
It's only at the climax of the film, when the action takes over that the film begins to weaken. The filmmakers seem to have some kind of answer to how the killer's storyline should be resolved, but it's not very good.
Despite the flaw, the film is excellent based on the performances of the cast, the editor who had to put all the dialogue-less scenes together (and later, won the Oscar for it), and Weir's masterful handling of the story.
I've seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of films, and when asked which is my favorite my decision keeps coming back to "Witness," Australian director Peter Weir's masterpiece. Fabulously acted, beautifully photographed . . . it's just perfect. Outside of the well-known stars (Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Danny Glover) look for brilliant work from Josef Sommers and an amazingly understated performance by the late Alexander Godunov.
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