Witness (1985, Peter Weir)


Australian director Peter Weir’s earlier films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Gallipoli had quite a strong voice (and I remember loving The Truman Show, years and years later but haven’t seen it in well over a decade), but his descent into the American Oscar-baiting middlebrow in the 1980s leaves much to be desired. Witness doesn’t even feel much like an Oscar-friendly feature, but it was a major success and gained all sorts of awards season attention all the same. Thirty years later, that’s harder than ever to understand.

The witness of the title is a young Amish boy who accidentally witnesses a murder in a men’s restroom at a bus station. He subsequently identifies a Philadelphia narcotics officer as one of the killers and confides this to a detective who’s working to protect the kid and his mother. Inevitably, Detective Book has to go into hiding himself when he starts asking questions about corruption, and just as inevitably he falls in love with the widow, and even more inevitably the entirety of Philadelphia’s corrupt police force descend violently upon the Amish community for a bravura finale.

The screenplay of this insultingly threadbare action-thriller-whatever, penned by William Kelley and Earl Wallace, is the sort of telegraphed, almost balletically predictable stuff they love to encourage in screenwriting classes, with a clearly marked three act structure, climax, love story, etc. The entire arc of the movie is clear in the first ten or twenty minutes and it has nothing new, individualistic or interesting to show us. Would that it was at least cornball and kitschy enough to be entertaining.

Harrison Ford, playing Book, proves yet again (see also Regarding Henry) that he can only play one character, a cranky archaeologist. Deriving meaningful emotion from his facial expressions here is akin to finding a trace of Sam Cooke’s joy and pain in a mediocre cover of “Wonderful World” sung by one “Greg Chapman.” Neither activity is worth the time or effort. Danny Glover is wasted in a humdrum villainous part, while Kelly McGillis — better known now as an acting teacher and LGBT activist in my home state than for this and her higher-profile role in Top Gun — is unable to make much of an impression, not that Weir and the script would probably let her.

Weir is capable of good things but assembly line material like this is just so rudimentary and facile. It’s competent and pretty but little more, and his interests clearly lie in the outsider’s examination of the Amish lifestyle — witness the lengthy barnraising sequence, which has no real reason to be here but obviously meant something to him — and not in either the ludicrous police corruption plot or the hackneyed love story that occupy most of the narrative.

Points for one of the nuttiest, most jarring climaxes in such an ordinary movie, though: a guy gets killed by falling corn! It’s amusing to look at the trailers and TV spots on the DVD (we were wine-drunk and just let it all play for some reason) and see how the film was advertised as a gritty, fast-paced action crime thriller that it very much isn’t. At least that idea of the movie, with no romantic pretensions and plenty of frivolous whiz-bang trash, would’ve been fun to watch.

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