Eyewitness gets a lot of abuse.
Peter Yates has become a punch-line to many a film joke, usually by people who love Breaking Away and don’t remember he did it. Eyewitness is an incredibly odd film–and not entirely successful, the protagonist (William Hurt) tends to talk to Sigourney Weaver straight from the id, no filtering. Her character is the film’s most complex (since the whole situation deals in a gray area of morality) and Weaver doesn’t always get it. There are a few scenes where she does, and it’s beautiful.
This film is incredibly gentle. It’s all about the character relationships. Writer Steve Tesich (also Breaking Away) even gives the cops personal conflicts, which is a little too much. But there’s a lot to appreciate in Eyewitness‘s indulgences. It makes for an odd experience–though Hurt’s character is so unbelievably straight-forward, it’s one of his best performances. Hurt tends not to play the identifiable character and, seeing him do it, is a special experience.
As for the mystery/thriller aspect of the film… it’s not really there, which may be why there’s such a hostility to the film. There’s a contract between artist and reader (or viewer) and Eyewitness does not deliver what the title (or the poster) promise. The score, or lack thereof, lets the viewer know the contract’s broken in the opening titles. I’m not much a stickler about the title contract when it comes to film (Pearl Harbor, for example, broke the shit out of it too, and so did Star Wars for that matter).
I’ve recommended Eyewitness in the past and had people look at me funny after watching it. Not every film needs to break your heart (like The Missouri Breaks). Hell, films don’t even have to engage your intelligence (Animal Crackers). But films do need to make your invested time worthwhile–and Eyewitness does. Just not if you’re looking for a mystery/thriller, rather a story about people.