Witness: Special Collector's Edition
Prior to the release of Witness in early 1985, the remote, peaceful Amish communities of rural Pennsylvania were about as far from the American pop-culture radar as were the Jarawa people of the Andaman Islands. Following the film's incredible success and testifying to its quality and power Witness implanted this obscure, Luddite religious sect into the zeitgeist, and it remains two decades later, for better or worse, the major source of Amish-related knowledge and interest for just about everyone living outside Lancaster County, Penn. While Witness's cultural impact on Amish-awareness is of only trivial interest, its powerful depiction of this simple, pacifist lifestyle, juxtaposed against a thriller narrative, is absolutely foremost in why the film remains just as stunning and stirring a movie as it celebrates its 20th year. Harrison Ford stars as John Book, a police captain investigating the murder of a fellow officer. Book's only witness to the crime is a frightened Amish boy, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), who is on his first trip outside of his insular home community, accompanied by his recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis). When Samuel fingers another detective (Danny Glover) as the killer, Book becomes hunted by a trio of corrupt cops and escapes to Amish country, where he attempts to blend in as he recuperates from a gunshot wound.
Superficially, Witness has much in common with far more ordinary films, basking in formulas of both fish-out-of-water and cop-thriller varieties. But Australian director Peter Weir, with his first Hollywood movie (he had previously gained notoriety with The Year of Living Dangerously, Gallipoli, and the lyrical Picnic at Hanging Rock), transforms this genre material into a quiet and graceful drama far more memorable for its series of indelible moments than for its almost run-of-the-mill plot. Witness begins not with star Ford, but with the mourning of and wake for Rachel's late husband. Right away, Weir announces his serious intentions with this unusually long sequence that introduces the Amish way of life and establishes a somber, quiet tone. Despite the movie's "thriller" trappings, Weir brilliantly maintains a lack of noise as scene after scene is executed with a minimum of dialogue, music, or foreground sound effects. Most of the movie's many impressive scenes consist merely of looks or gestures. As a result, the economical dialogue is charged with import, and the few key sounds announce their effect by distinction. When action does break out, it virtually explodes by comparison, punctuating and puncturing the stillness around it. As Book, Ford transformed himself from the fantasy film matinee idols of Han Solo and Indiana Jones into a full-fledged dramatic actor of consequence, earning a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar. His effective performance is even more remarkable when we consider Book's atypical lack of character arc. The Philadelphia cop is refreshingly lacking in gimmicky conceits requiring transformative growth during his foray into Amish country, but Ford is no less riveting for it. The sexual tension between Ford and newcomer McGillis is masterfully charged, and yet seemingly effortless, arising from Weir's talent for capturing intimacy without smothering it. In many ways, Witness succeeds marvelously because, like the Amish, it eschews artifice and unnecessary complications in favor of simplicity and honest interactions. The supporting cast includes Josef Sommer, Patti Lupone, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, and, briefly, Viggo Mortensen. The dated (but rare) music is supplied by Maurice Jarre.
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Paramount presents this "Special Collector's Edition" of Witness in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that beautifully displays John Seale's excellent photography. The audio is presented in both the original Dolby 2.0 Surround and a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. While there is no commentary track, this disc does include a decent five-part featurette about the movie with reflections from Weir, Ford, Haas, a nearly unrecognizable McGillis, and others (60 min.). Also included is a long "deleted scene" between Rachel and Book's sister (Lupone), which was included in television broadcasts of the film. Trailer and TV spots; keep-case.