Film is an entertainment medium that, by its very nature, tends to reward the viewer in rewatch. Sometimes movies even reveal to us how we’ve grown or changed since we last saw them. Our own Max Robinson reassesses old favorites, seasonal classics and the occasional oddball lost under the couch in his monthly column, Stale Popcorn.
I wanted to talk about Peter Weir’s Witness for a couple of reasons. First, as a sort of coda to our Neo-Noirvember month of essays. And second because I’m writing this over Thanksgiving weekend and it’s a film very much concerned with family and community.
Witness is a movie defined by contrasts. It’s ostensibly a crime thriller that opens on an Amish funeral, with the now-widowed Rachel Lapp in mourning. John Seale’s shots of the lush and green Lancaster County countryside throughout the film have an almost inexpressible emptiness and beauty to them. Rachel, with her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas), goes to visit her sister in Baltimore following the funeral. Rachel’s father (Jan Rubes) makes a point of warning her to “be careful out there among the English,” an eerie portent of what’s to come.
From that point on, the film’s perspective switches to Samuel’s. Samuel, who has never left his home, is amazed by the sight of things taken for granted in the modern world like trains and water fountains. As Samuel and his mother wait for a delayed train in Philadelphia, scenes are shot with extremely low angles as if we were viewing the world from Samuel’s perspective or from extremely high angles to emphasize how small Samuel is amidst the massive adult world of the train station. The quiet beauty of Witness comes to a screeching halt in the film’s inciting incident: Samuel watches two men brutally murder a third in the men’s restroom.
It’s at this point that the film introduces us to Detective John Book, a seriously underrated performance from Harrison Ford. It’d be easy to dismiss the rough and tumble loner Book as a Diet Coke variation of, say, Rick Deckard, but there’s a real humanity to his performance that really distinguishes him from other similar Ford roles. Despite his genuine warmth, Book’s penchant for violence immediately puts him at odds with Rachel’s pacifism; she’s appalled when he slams a perp’s face against a squad car window to get a positive ID from Samuel. (As an interesting aside, the scuzzy bar Book brings the Lapps to in this scene is named “Happy Valley,” a kind of nightmarish inversion of the Lapps’ home.) Book is confident in his power and status as a policeman until Samuel finally identifies one of the killers as a decorated Philadelphia narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover, here playing a real nasty piece of work) involved in a drug trafficking operation.
Book’s sense of community behind the blue line crumbles when he reports his findings to a trusted superior Chief Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who returns Book’s honesty by sending McFee to execute him in the parking lot of his own apartment building. Book is so shaken by this betrayal that he barely seems to notice the gunshot wound he suffers in the altercation. Ford ditches his patented cocksure smile for these scenes in favor of vulnerability, playing Book as traumatized and terrified. “There isn’t going to be any trial,” he tells Rachel with a doomed certainty.
In hiding on the Lapp family farm, Witness places Book in the roles Samuel and Rachel occupied earlier. Book is thrown into a world of which he has very little understanding. Rachel’s father and fellow Amish are instinctively distrustful and wary of the gun carrying “English” but agree to let him stay long enough to recover from his wound. Book is uncomfortable amongst the Amish, even at one point quoting a line from a popular coffee commercial at the dinner table before remembering that the Lapps wouldn’t have any frame of reference for his joke.
Book’s mere presence changes everything for the previously unquestioning devotee Rachel, however. On top of the simmering chemistry between them, Rachel falls in love with Book when he demonstrates an aptitude for carpentry. Besides the fact this is a skill Harrison Ford has in real life, it shows that Book the character has the capacity to create and not just destroy. Rachel is entranced by Book and his world, culminating in a scene in which they dance to a Greg Chapman cover of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” playing off Book’s modern car radio and nearly give into temptation. This moment of quiet intimacy is jarringly disrupted when Rachel’s father catches them.
Things spiral further out of control and Rachel is threatened with banishment for her unseemly relationship with Book while Book’s presence continues to anger the Amish community. On a visit to town, Book loses control of himself and beats an obnoxious tourist to a pulp after he harasses one of the Amish men. Violence in Witness is never glorified, always presented as horrific, and Book’s penchant for knocking guys around is treated as a character flaw. In fact, Book’s assault is implied to be the thing that ultimately leads the corrupt Philadelphia cops to the Lapps.
Witness‘s final showdown, with McFee, Schaeffer and a third dirty cop named Fergie menacingly invading the Lapp homestead brandishing shotguns, is something of a deliberate anti-climax. Book kills Fergie by suffocating him under a silo full of corn, in a sequence that is still unnerving to me despite repeated viewings of the film. Book shoots and kills McFee, but when Schaeffer holds Rachel at gunpoint, he drops his weapon. Schaeffer is stopped not with a bullet but with the arrival of nearby Amish farmers. Book reasons with him to give up, telling him “enough” and angrily demanding if he’s prepared to kill this many innocent people. Book’s ultimate victory is achieved without throwing a punch or firing a gun.
Although Rachel attempts to turn her back on her Amish faith and be with Book just before the film’s violent conclusion—with a scene that leaves it ambiguous as to whether they sleep together—both silently acknowledge they can never be together despite how much they’ve changed. “Be careful out there among the English,” Rachel’s father calls to Book as he finally leaves.
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