Witness by Peter Weir

Anyone who has ever sat through a college English course has heard this drone: “There are only (fill in the blank) stories out there.  Every one you read is just a variation.”  In my time, I have heard that fill-in-the-blank amount range everywhere from seven to twenty-one so I have no fixed number to offer.  What I do know is that there are core stories that act as the basis for the vast majority of the tales we tell.

Take Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” for example.  The core here is a protagonist who is willing to give his soul to the Devil in return for wealth and fame.  The flexibility of this theme has been the basis for operas, plays, and novels, for works as varied as Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ Broadway musical, “Damn Yankees.”  And these are only the ones that actually use the Devil as a device.  Now add to those all of the stories where we see love or security traded away for power or wealth and you get an idea of how fundamental this theme is to our storytelling heritage.  Citizen Kane anyone?

Another prevalent theme is “stranger in a strange land,” the device of thrusting a protagonist into a completely unfamiliar world then watching as they first flail then come to terms with the new territory.  Hitchcock’s North by Northwest spends the first five minutes weaving a rug of smug urban complacency under the feet of Cary Grant then yanking it out.  For the next two hours, we watch as he is forced into the foreign Midwest and slowly gains the skills necessary to overcome evil James Mason and earn the affections of honest Eva Marie Saint.

Hitchcock frequently returned to this device, but probably no director has ever gone to this well as frequently as Peter Weir.  Beginning with 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and carrying through such varied films as Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Mosquito Coast, Green Card, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has consistently been drawn to stories that pit his protagonist against a foreign and threatening territory.

Never was this truer or more cleverly exploited than in his 1985 film, Witness (Amazon Link to Film and Trailer).  Samuel (Lukas Haas), a nine year-old Amish boy, witnesses a brutal killing in the men’s room of the Philadelphia train station.  Threatened himself, Samuel comes under the protection of Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), a cop whose methods terrify Rachel (Kelly McGillis), the boy’s devout mother.  When Book is shot and escapes to their community, the wounded cop’s presence brings suspicion to the tightly knit and determinedly isolated Amish, and emotional confusion to the recently-widowed Rachel.

Let’s be honest:  Setting a story in the middle of Amish country is dangerous. The simplicity of religious life could be quickly turned into a cliché meant only to serve the needs of its story.  Consider a classic like High Noon.  Even this movie couldn’t resist the idea that a Quaker maid (Grace Kelly) could find redemption by violating her beliefs and blowing away the bad guy.  Witness works because Weir refuses to treat the Amish as quaint or, worse, people who need to be “cured.” 

Throughout the film, Weir shows respect for a way of life that is foreign not only to Book, but to the vast majority of his audience.  The barn raising sequence, for example, is important not because it is saying, “Look at the cute customs,” but in how it shows that community trust is built through mutual support.  This is contrasted with the world of the Philadelphia police department which is shown as silos whose dysfunction is a direct result of each side distrusting the other.

Such rhymes work in Witness as much in tone and genre as in action.  The Amish country is verdant and bucolic, shown with an unforced documentary feel while Philadelphia is painted in neo-noir tones of night and shadow. Even the compositions are in conflict. The religious community is seen in wide, panoramic shots reminiscent of David Lean while the city is shown in tight sweaty close-ups and claustrophobic spaces that call up John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

Similar rhymes function throughout the visual tapestry of Witness, but then Weir has always directed with flourishes that reveal his early training in the arts.  Here he demonstrates a strong grip on visual metaphors that allow him to reveal what is felt but not expressed by these characters.  The result is that the growing bond between Book and Rachel creates a pressure cooker that we can see but they cannot state.  During a night scene in the barn, Rachel is helping Book work on starting his car.  The scene opens with an overhead shot of the auto in the darkness.  Blasting out of every window are shafts of light.  Logically, we see that these are coming from the lantern she is holding.  Emotionally, we feel these as the expression of heat between them.  Throughout this scene, it is not the dialogue, but the constant play of looks, light and subtly shifting colors that express their unspoken desires.  This is the difference between sex and eroticism and Weir uses a firm grip on the visuals to keep us in this latter realm.

Weir is perfectly supported in this constant teasing of subtext by a lean and beautifully structured screenplay by Earl Wallace, Pamela Wallace and William Kelley.  Originally conceived to be an episode of the television series Gunsmoke, the final script maintains the laconic and spare dialogue associated with that series, using small yet significant details to reveal relationships, and action set to a slow boil that ground the tale within the conventions of the western.

In most police thrillers, romance is a throwaway plot device. In Witness, it is central to the film’s thesis.  In fact, the externals that make it a part of this genre are merely devices that Weir uses to explore his theme of impossible love.  Book and Rachel know only their very different worlds and must come to grips with what a future would be like if one is ripped from the only society that they know. This problem is made achingly clear when we witness the unmistakable chemistry between Ford and McGillis.  They guide us to an ending that works precisely because it represents an inevitable truth rather than a typical Hollywood wish fulfillment.

Operating from an archetypal story that goes back at least as far as Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Weir finds a fresh variation by continually cross-cutting between two very different worlds that are only a buggy ride away from each other.  In doing so, he gives equal weight to the things that unite us and the things that push us apart.  And as any English professor will tell you, that’s the tension that all good stories need.