J.D. Lafrance
Witness: Special Collector’s Edition DVD Review

Witness: Special Collector’s Edition

January 19, 2006

Director: Peter Weir,
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Patti LuPone, Danny Glover, Brent Jennings, Viggo Mortensen, ,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Remember when Harrison Ford used to make good movies? It’s scary to think that there is an entire generation that only knows him from dreck like Hollywood Homicide (2003). The ‘80s proved to be his most prolific period where, in between huge blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he successfully tackled challenging fare like Blade Runner (1982), Frantic (1988) and the two films he made with Peter Weir—Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986). The former was a fascinating look at culture clash and a meditation on the cause and effect of violence.

Ford plays a gruff, Philadelphia homicide detective named John Book. He is investigating the murder of an undercover narcotics agent with a young Amish boy named Samuel (Haas) as the only witness. Book finds out that the man was killed by corrupt cops and is shot by one of them (Glover) when he gets too close. Book takes the boy and his recently widowed mother, Rachel (McGillis), and flees the city, taking refuge in their small Amish community. As Book is nursed back to health, he experiences first hand the simple, decent ways of the Amish people and how it is in stark contrast to his coarse, no-nonsense way of life.

Weir portrays the Amish with dignity and respect. He opens the film with beautiful pastoral scenes of lush, green fields of tall grass gently swaying in the wind and then contrasts this serenity with the dirty, noisy and crowded city. The Amish scenes are leisurely paced, mirroring the laid-back vibe of these people while the Philly sequences are tense and jarring in their urgency; danger seemingly lurks around every corner and it is a relief once we leave there and return to the quiet, peaceful countryside.

Weir cleverly films the initial scenes in the city at low angles so that the camera is at eye level with Samuel. We are seeing the city through his eyes and therefore identify with him. Consequently, we also see the horror of the undercover agent’s death through his eyes. It is brutal and swift. We feel the boy’s fear and horror acutely. It’s not until we get to Amish country that Weir opens things up and shows everything from a more omniscient point-of-view.

Ford has a natural, authoritative presence that suits the cop role he plays. The veteran actor brings the right amount of intensity and then has to turn it around once his character becomes immersed in the Amish community. Book begins to soften his hard edges as these people get under his skin. In contrast, Kelly McGillis launched her career with Witness. At the time she was an unknown actress and brought a touching innocence to the role as a reserved, conservative Amish woman. The more time she spends with Book, the deeper the attraction between them grows. Along with her roles in Top Gun (1986) and The Accused (1988), she had quite a prominent career in the ‘80s that did not have the same high profile in the ‘90s.

Life is regarded highly by the Amish and in this movie. Violence is portrayed as a painful and ugly experience. It’s not even glamourized in the film’s climatic showdown between Book and the dirty cops. This viewpoint must have come as quite a shock to Ford’s fans that were used to the gory violence in Blade Runner and the high body count in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Ultimately, Witness is about a clash of cultures: Book’s violent world colliding with the peaceful world of the Amish. Can they co-exist? For Book, violence is a necessary part of his job but not for the Amish which makes any kind of romance between him and Rachel doomed from the get-go. It’s hard to believe that Witness is 20 years old and it still retains the quiet dignity and humanity that made it a powerful film back then.

Special Features:

“Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness” is five-part, feature-length retrospective documentary. There are brand new interviews with all the principal cast members: Ford, McGillis, Haas and, in a pleasant surprise, Viggo Mortensen who was a young, up-and-coming actor at the time and only had a small amount of actual screen time. Weir was attracted to the novel premise and the notion of being a hired director instead of having to originate his own material. Ford was drawn to his character and the clash of cultures. He also researched his role extensively with the Philadelphia police department while Weir studied the Amish culture. This is an excellent, in-depth look at how this film came together with intelligent comments from both cast and crew.

There is a deleted scene that was originally shown on network television that features Samuel enjoying modern technology, playing Donkey Kong with John’s sister’s kids. Then, Rachel gets all the kids to clean up the kitchen, angering John’s sister in this nice example of the clash of cultures.

Finally, there are three TV spots and a theatrical trailer.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 89%



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