Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Twenty-Nine

#29 — Witness (Peter Weir, 1985)
There’s something unique about the sedate assurance Peter Weir brings to his films, especially when the works in question are at their most bleakly lovely and elegiacal. I remember reading an interview with Weir in which he talked about trying to find an approach where the elements of this film that were potentially most off-putting could be transformed into things of odd beauty. Death in a movie, even a movie that has some elements of mystery and action doesn’t automatically need to be kinetic, sharp. It can have a mesmerizing quality. It can challenge perceptions by being simultaneously frightening and visually enticing. The end doesn’t need to come from a bullet wound with a exploding fountain of blood like Sam Peckinpah might rig up; it can be delivered by a waterfall of foodstuff inside of a rustic silo. Movies have been killing characters for as long as film has been threaded through cameras. For an artist like Weir, the long history made it imperative that he approach the mechanics of those moments in a different way.

The paradox embedded in this particular manifestation of creative energy is integral to the movie Witness and a perfect reflection of the themes built right into the story. Weir comes as close as he possibly can to making the audience see the brutality of a cruel, violent world with the same disorientation as the Amish who are central to the film’s story. On his first trip to the city, a young Amish boy played by Lukas Haas witnesses a murder in the men’s room of the train station. In trying to draw information from the boy, Detective John Book, played by Harrison Ford, discovers that the crime is directly related to corruption within the police force. To protect the boy and his mother, he takes them back to their isolated community, but not before sustaining an injury that causes him to stay with them in their farmhouse.

It is the well-worn trope of clashing cultures, but credited screenwriters Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley (Pamela Wallace shares a story credit with them) refrain from squeezing easy drama out of the conflict. They instead approach the situation with dignity and care, showing respect for the intricacies of how people come to know and understand one another, particular when the initial divide seems so vast. Weir handles it all with a great empathy. He’s not really a probing director, but he’s highly observant. Throughout the film, there’s a sense that he’s watching scenes, trying carefully to figure them out rather than imposing meaning on them. In this respect, he’s more like a documentarian than a filmmaker who’s helping to build the story from scratch. Even as Weir continually exhibits an incredibly elegant eye and a mastery of visual craftsmanship, the film flows with the current of satisfying discovery. Transcribing the plot on paper, it’s not hard to see where it will go. Weir’s talent is realizing it onscreen in a manner that makes it feel poetic, organic and totally fresh.

Weir also helps Ford develop a performance that, at the time anyway, felt wholly tranformative. The actor had done good work previously, but always in the service of material that ultimately demanded less from him. They were performances about imposing believability on the unbelievable, and its no small achievement that he pulled them off as well as his did. Still, it was highly gratifying to see him dig more deeply into a character, melding his presence and charisma with a intriguing inner life. Ford has long been an appealing movie star, but Weir was one of the few directors who forced him to be an actor. Weir pushed Ford even further the following year in The Mosquito Coast. No one has gotten him near the level of accomplishment since, not even gifted directors of actors like Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski or Sydney Pollack. Ford’s grounded, insightful work is a major part of what gives Witness it’s authority, what moves it away from the expected outcomes of its familiar components and towards something far more moving and profound.

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