Witness (1985, Peter Weir)

Witness has a beautifully directed scene or sequence every five to ten minutes. Just something director Weir is able to particularly nail, sometimes with John Seale’s photography’s help, sometimes with Thom Noble’s editing, then probably least of all, with Maurice Jarre’s score’s help. Jarre’s score is good, very pretty, and occasionally redundant; when it sells a scene, however, it stands out. There are a couple where it’s all on Jarre. There just happen to be a lot more leveraging the photography and editing. Though mostly the Seale photography; Witness is often absolutely, intentionally gorgeous.

Weir directs some of Witness like a Western, which isn’t too much of a stretch since it’s got a Western’s story. Harrison Ford is a city cop who ends up having to hide out with the Amish to protect himself and a defenseless witness (eight year-old Lukas Haas) from the bad guys. Haas and his mom, Kelly McGillis, were traveling through the city and Haas witnessed a murder and Ford needs him to identify the killer.

The film opens with McGillis and Haas at home, in mourning—McGillis’s husband has just died and they’re going to visit family, leaving father-in-law Jan Rubes and prospective (whether McGillis is interested or not) new husband Alexander Godunov waiting for their return. The first half of the first act is Haas experiencing the big city, albeit through the train station, for the first time. Pretty soon it’s going to open up to his experience of the police investigation into the murder; once they get back to Amish Country, however, the film’s going to quickly lose track of Haas.

During the police investigation in the city, there’s a lot of procedural as Ford figures out what’s going on after Haas spots the bad guy and a bit of character backstory revelation. The film handles the exposition dump rather affably, given the violence around it; McGillis and Haas have to spend the night at Patti LuPone’s house—LuPone is Ford’s sister—and the next morning McGillis gives Ford the rundown on what LuPone really thinks.

McGillis and Ford have a standoffish relationship until after they get to the country, when McGillis has to nurse Ford back to health, setting them up on an inevitable romance arc. McGillis is risking everything for it, Ford not so much. Weir handles the romance with more distance than anything else in the film. Remote third person. We rarely get to see McGillis and Ford together, usually only for the most cinematic romantic sequences. The distance works, not just for the classy romance novel cover takes on their constrained love scenes, but also because it means Witness doesn’t have to delve too deep into the character development. There’s a never addressed, bulbous subtext about men controlling women—starting with all the Amish and McGillis, then Ford dictating LuPone’s social life, then Rubes dictating McGillis’s… it goes on and on and on. And Weir does his damndest to avoid it.

Because if the first act is Haas and his experience of life among the English, the second act ought to be McGillis’s, only it’s not. It’s also not Ford’s. He gets to do action hero in the third act—in an exquisite sequence from Weir, Seale, and Noble—but the second act is this roaming narrative about the situation of Ford recuperating in hiding, with Weir’s direction giving the film the structure, not the script.

It’s not a character study, it’s not a melodrama, it’s not a mystery. Committing to any specific genre would make the script’s decencies too obvious. So for the toughest spots, Weir just lets Jarre’s music have it and Jarre makes it work.

There are times when Jarre is more part of the team—the fantastic barn raising sequence, for example—and while they work better overall, it’s still cool to see (and hear) Jarre make the problem of disappearing subplots just not matter.

Ford and McGillis are good. The distanced approach works for them. Haas and Rubes are great. Godunov’s good, even though he’s basically a handsome creep. Josef Sommer, Brent Jennings, and Danny Glover are all good as the city cops. Glover gets the best showcase, Jennings gets the least.

Witness is really good. Weir’s direction is solid throughout, but when it’s better than the norm, it’s very special, which scales to the film itself.

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