Combustible Celluloid
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With: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Brent Jennings, Patti LuPone, Angus MacInnes, Frederick Rolf, Viggo Mortensen, John Garson, Beverly May, Ed Crowley
Written by: William Kelley, Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace
Directed by: Peter Weir
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112
Date: 02/08/1985

Witness (1985)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Farm Aid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Fish-out-of-water stories were very popular for a while in the 1980s (Beverly Hills Cop and 'Crocodile' Dundee were two favorites), but none had the classical resonance of this powerful Oscar-nominated drama.

Harrison Ford stars as big city cop John Book who takes on a routine murder case, and unexpectedly discovers the murderer within his own department. The only witness is a young Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas). To protect the boy and his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), Book takes them both back to Amish country to hide out until the trial.

Australian-born director Peter Weir (The Last Wave, The Truman Show), who specializes in establishing specific places and their rhythms, perfectly captures Amish country. He gives it and its people dignity with only a hint of preciousness.

Of course, Book must learn to adapt and control his violent ways to live among these peaceful people, and Weir balances these scenes nicely. The scene in which Book fixes his car and dances with Rachel to Sam Cooke's "What a Wonderful World" has entered into the lexicon of romantic scenes -- both innocent and forbidden. A remarkable early scene in which Samuel points out the killer from among a trophy case is also notable for its excellent use of sound and music. And when the chase/fight finally comes during the third act, Weir successfully incorporates its pulse into the rest of the film's flow.

Ford earned his only Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, and the film received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Writers William Kelley, Earl W. Wallace and Pamela Wallace took home Oscars for their screenplay. Viggo Mortensen appears in an early role, and Danny Glover sinks his teeth into an uncharacteristic bad guy part.

Paramount has re-released Witness on a new 2005 Special Edition DVD. It comes with a lengthy talking heads-and-clips featurette (including interviews with both Weir and Ford), a deleted scene and trailers, but no commentary track.

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