Witness is a 1985 thriller drama film directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford. It was nominated for incredible eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and it deserved it as it is so surprisingly good.
It is about a detective who must protect a young Amish boy and his mother after the boy becomes a witness of a murder. This film is very odd. And in its concept and especially execution it feels as if you are watching two different movies. Witness’s genre mix of thriller and drama does not mash well, but is still so unique and different that I enjoyed it very much. The first and the last act are both in the thriller genre. But the whole long second act is pure drama. It is an interesting concept and it gives the movie some heart as well as a brain. Let me explain. By having that Amish drama, Witness suddenly has a romance to go with it as well. And although it is predictable and expected, it is still moving and well realized. But it succeeds even more on the intellectual level as it showcases a great understanding of both cultures and although it presents Amish as somewhat better people, it still strikes a balance in the comparison between the two in showcasing the different lifestyles and moral codes. It really is a fascinating subject matter, very authentic as well, but thankfully explored incredibly well.
But Witness succeeds as a thriller as well and that is all due to its beginning as the ending I did not appreciate as much. But it starts with a bang! The first fifteen minutes or so with the murder happening is so pulse-pounding and so thrilling that it is incredible to behold. It is also instantly recognizable and the most memorable and the finest part of the whole movie, the one that is executed with the most style and power. It is something that Hitchcock would have in his films – an unexpected situation filled with thrills and intense moments, but with powerful execution as well.
Now, the characters are also surprisingly well developed for a thriller film. John Book is a fine protagonist, still somewhat too heroic, but nevertheless well portrayed and likable, which is rare for Harrison Ford characters. Rachel Lapp is also a great character and the romance between the two is wonderful and she is realistically portrayed, albeit with her beauty too emphasized. Samuel is also quite good as a kid character and the other Amish people are well realized and the villains are quite solid.
The acting is really good. This is Harrison Ford’s finest performance without a doubt and the only time he played a real, likable character that you can root for. And although you could still see the acting at certain times, he still gave a mostly good performance that is easily his best as he was never a particularly good actor. Kelly McGillis is also stupendous and she gave such a great and nuanced performance.
The directing from Peter Weir is really good and the film is very well shot and wonderfully executed. The score is also solid with at times thrilling results. And for once I liked the slow-motion sequences as they are displayed at just the right moments to increase tension. The movie is very original in its genre mix and it is also very emotional and it does have a heart and it does have something to say thanks to a smart screenplay. The humor is rare, but once there, it is quite good. And the movie, although predictable and familiar in some plot points, is still riveting from start to finish and very realistic in approach. Apart from one prolonged sequence in the Amish part that was very unnecessary, the editing is regardless superb and it is deftly paced and never boring and thankfully never too frenetic.
I agree with its Oscars. It thoroughly deserved Best Editing and most importantly Best Original Screenplay as this is the rare thriller that is very original and authentic in its story, but also so clever. As for Best Actor nomination, I wouldn’t go so far, but it did deserve its technical nominations as well as Best Picture and Best Director nods. It really is a superb thriller and one of the best from the eighties without a doubt.
Witness‘s genre mix of thriller and drama is definitely original and even audacious even if at times it doesn’t quite work. But it is still such a well crafted story, for once meaningful and smart, having both romance and drama, but still having terrific thriller elements, especially in the pulse-pounding and so memorable beginning. It is a thrilling, but emotional film that also has something to say. It is incredibly well executed, well directed, well acted, but above all well paced and riveting from start to finish. It is one of the best 1980s thrillers without a doubt.
+ Phenomenal screenplay.
+ Great acting.
+ Excellent directing, editing and a technically deft film.
+ Smart themes.
+ Memorable thrills.
+ Authentic mix of genres.
– The mix doesn’t always work, seems like two different movies
– Editing is good apart from one overlong sequence.
– It is predictable and familiar at certain points.
– Thriller as well as drama fans.
– Harrison Ford fans.
– Usual thriller fans who expect an all-out thriller.