Even those would might doubt that Peter Weir is amongst the greatest living directors in the world today would find it hard to question the critical and box office acclaim that Witness has received since its 1985 release. The movie that proved Harrison Ford was capable of more than flying the Millenium Falcon and cracking a bullwhip at nazis, is the kind of slowly evolving romantic thriller that catches audiences by surprise.When a small Amish boy (a very young Lukas Haas) witnesses a murder in a train station bathroom, good cop Ford takes him and his attractive mom (Kelly McGillis) in for questioning, against their protestations. When the lugnut-eared kid identifies said killer as a cop, our boy Harrison suddenly finds himself wondering who he can trust, culminating in a shoot-out that leaves him near fatally wounded and on the run with his only witnesses.
At this point, Witness could have gone totally wrong. Unlike the ‘lets poke fun at the funny bearded people’ tack used in the Tim Allen/Kirstie Alley ‘comedy’ For Richer or Poorer, Witness doesn’t stare, point and giggle at the Amish folks. Instead of making this your typical fish out of water story, Peter Weir treats the Amish as they really are – merely a community of folks who choose a different way of living. Instead of lining up the wisecracks or going for sensationalism (or worse, an ‘everything will be okay if you join the civilized world’ ending), Weir goes in the other direction altogether. Pointing out the silliness of our own ‘civilized’ ways without ever making the audience feel like they’re being preached to, he manages to somehow create a film where the lads will be unaware they’re watching a romance and the women will be unaware they’re watching a cop thriller.
Ford is on top of his form, underplaying his role throughout and never mugging it up for the cameras. McGillis takes her character into surprisingly sexual waters and manages to burn every bit as hard for Ford as Meryl Streep does for Clint Eastwood in Bridges of Madison County. In fact, if you think of Witness as a version of Madison County with something added to keep the boys awake, this could well be one of the better ‘parents are away’ videos you’re likely to find on the Blockbuster shelf.
Like most of Weir’s films, this is a work of quality. It took home two Oscars (screenplay and editing) and was nominated for six more, including best actor, best director and best film, so if that doesn’t make it worth your time, you’re a very picky bastard.Oh, and Danny Glover gets shot in the guts... who wouldn't pay to see that?