When we are kids we are aliens to the world. We are bold explorers of uncharted maps. A maiden trip to the mall with mom and dad can seem as adventurous and perilous as Ernest Shackleton’s journey on the Endurance. What’s up with those crazy looking dudes in the video game arcade? Why are they smoking a tiny cigarette with tweezers? Didn’t you see mommy smoke one like that at her last fondue party? Ask her about it at the dinner table later. Why is that woman with the painted face sticking her tongue out at you? She looks like Raggedy Ann’s wicked step mother. Clutch mommy’s hand tighter as she drags you to Macy’s so she can get daddy new socks and underwear. She seemed happier at the fondue party, puffing away on that tiny cigarette, melted cheese all over the coffee table like snots from the dog.
It is tough enough to process all the data in the world when you’re a young child in suburban America. What if you are an Amish child? You are the ultimate outsiders. The nicest people regard you as quaint curios from another time, staring at you through your windows and studying you as if you were animals in preserve. The worst people hate you because you are different. They are tired of getting stuck behind your horse and buggy when they are trying to get to the drive-in to watch Red Dawn and finger fuck their skanky girlfriends in the dirty front seat of their pick-up trucks. Not much to do in Lancaster except hang out and hate on the Amish. Not very risky to push those old-fashioned relics around. They aren’t allowed to fight back. Fuck, they don’t even use electricity. No television to watch The A-Team. You can kick them Amish around like you are Indiana Jones beating up Nazis.
Peter Weir’s excellent movie, Witness, is a near perfect mash-up of crime drama, romance and fish out of water tale. It tells the story of newly widowed Amish woman Rachel Lapp, played by Kelly McGillis. She used to be a somewhat of a sex symbol thirty years ago. Tom Cruise dug her shit when he wasn’t staring at Val Kilmer’s glistening and buff body (yeah, he was in shape once) in Top Gun. Rachel takes her son Samuel (Lukas Haas) to see relatives in Baltimore, but they get stuck in Philly for three hours. Instead of catching a Flyers game or grabbing a few cheese steaks they just count out time in 30th Street Station. The technology of a walkman forbidden to her, Rachel puts her nose to some knitting, or religious reading. Samuel does some exploring of the strange new world. Weir and cinematographer, John Seale, present 30th Street Station as a foreign and slightly intimidating place for Samuel. The Amish boy, like most young children, eventually has to use the bathroom. Unlike most children, he witnesses a cop getting his throat slit by two men as he cowers in a stall, frozen with fear by what he has just seen. Killed in the shitter is a tough way to go. Those fucking floors are disgusting. A dead body with its neck oozing blood might be the cleanest thing on it. Even the Amish can understand that. Nobody likes a carcass, or a schmutzig floor.
Enter Harrison Ford’s Detective John Book. The story needs a cop, doesn’t it? In 1985, there was nobody more suited to play a police officer who looked like he could eat rusty nails for breakfast, but be kind to a frightened boy than Ford.He also needs to be good looking enough to make the women in the audience swoon when the attraction between him and Rachel builds up like that eerie quiet just before a monster thunderstorm in the summer. Will the storm blow over, or will lightning split the sky and the ground tremble as if Tesla was experimenting on some top secret and powerful contraption? John Book is a great, literary name for a cop. The name may seem corny in real life for a cop, but not for a Hollywood movie. You get tossed into the interrogation room with Detective John Book you know you ain’t leaving that heat box until you have confessed your crime. You might also leave with some bruises and broken bones, too. Harrison Ford in his prime could get away with this kind of behavior and still make the character likable. Skells and scumbags deserved to get tuned up, anyway. Thirty years ago, society understood that shit.
A chance view by Samuel of a newspaper headline in a trophy case in the police station, makes Book realize that the two killers are also cops. He takes the information to his superior, Schaeffer, played by a wonderfully detached and icy Josef Sommer. Character actors don’t get much better than Sommer and he is at the top of his game in Witness. After he gets into a shootout in a parking garage and nearly ruins his dry cleaning with blood from his bullet wound, Book realizes Schaeffer is in league with the killers. Profits from drugs can be a powerful motivator, crumbling a rock solid foundation of years of friendship and loyalty into dust in minutes. Tesla’s machine again? Book takes the Lapps back to their Amish community where he can convalesce and figure a way out of the mess he is in.
The scenes in the Amish community are filled with humor and some touching and probing conversations. There is a great scene with Samuel and his grandfather as they discuss the nature of evil in man and who has the right to put and end to it. It is poignant and revealing. Book’s gun becomes a focal point of the script, as well. Witness handles it very well. There are no heavy-handed diatribes on whether guns themselves are evil. The gun is simply a tool Book uses, much like a carpenter uses a hammer. The Amish are simply against guns and they make Book aware of this, sternly, but they realize Book has a job to do. This is a rarity for Hollywood films as they so often want to take one side of an issue and demonize the other.
Witness is a great date movie. The ladies get the beautifully handled and brief romance between Book and Rachel. Yes, they are physically attracted to each other. However, I think it is more out of respect for each other. They come from very different worlds and they both realize how tough their existences can be. This kind of empathy can make the nether regions tingle with excitement and no human on earth is immune to it.
The guys can enjoy Harrison Ford acting tough and fucking up some people, albeit filmed sometimes in some pretty artsy ways by master director Weir. A great scene features Book, dressed as an Amish, kick the shit out of some hicks who were taunting some of the other Amish. We get an angry looking Ford dropping a great line just before he splatters some dude’s nose. This scene will eventually lead the bad guys to him and the Lapps. Witness also features the second best instance of the finger of doom in the very satisfying conclusion of the film. I have given Ford much grief over the past fifteen years. I think he has deserved it. From poor script choices and the fact that once he hit sixty, he probably should have started taking some meaty, supporting roles instead of bland leading man shit in which he barely seems awake half the time. However, there was a reason he was once the biggest star on the planet. Witness is a testament to that and Ford’s only Oscar nomination. Here’s hoping Ford has some more good roles in him.
A mention should go out for Maurice Jarre’s wonderful score to Witness. It is very ethereal and really underscores the stranger in a strange land theme that runs throughout the film. It is light and airy like the best churned butter the Amish have to offer. When the story calls for it, Jarre’s score turns dark and foreboding like spit-up phlegm from infected lungs. In closing, Witness is a great film with something for everyone. It is an excellent crime drama with some nice, understated humor. There is sufficient violence in it so the guys can feel masculine about watching it. You get a nice little romance and we can learn about how different people can get along with each other, which is always a good message.
Watch out for them English out there.