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Witness (1985)

by on 2010/03/19

My first experience with Witness was a screening in a high school class called “Law”.  Frankly, I suspect the class was more of an excuse for its overseer to catch up on a backlog of courtroom rentals.  While the notion of a class driven mainly by videos like And Justice for All, Jagged Edge, and The Verdict may seem compelling, somehow it just didn’t win me over.  Of them all, the one I remembered best was Witness.

Hard to believe that was 25 years ago.  (Welcome to the blog where movie reviews catalyze midlife crises.)  In the years since, especially of late, I always intended to locate Witness again.  I saw it in one store but, when I left to investigate its extras online, I wound up getting sidetracked.  When I returned, it was gone.  I later saw it included in a three-pack of movies, other Harrison Ford “favourites” like Patriot Games and What Lies Beneath. Again, I decided I would think about it for a while.  When I returned later the same week, it was gone once more.

Something in my subconscious must have given me pause.  And destiny was using the opportunity to keep the movie out of my hands.  Fate knew what I did not:  When I eventually resorted to this rental, it would disappoint me.  Clearly, the fond memories were the product of teenaged relief at escaping real class work.

In this movie, Harrison Ford plays John Book, a policeman investigating the murder of a fellow officer in a transit station washroom.  (That is to say the murder took place in a washroom, not the investigation.)  The only witness to the killing is a young boy who lives far from the city, in an Amish community, where rock and roll, kissing, and breast-baring are slightly less popular than in the big city.  Book abandons his city-friends and family to criminal vengeance and delivers the child back to a peaceful rural setting.  Here the actor’s famed affinity for carpentry comes in handy, and he learns some Important Life Lessons about meddling with rustic cultures and leading women on.

Listen, this isn’t a bad movie and, yes, I know how many awards it was nominated for.  (Well, admittedly, I don’t know the exact number offhand, but I do realize it was above average).  Still, while I appreciated its attempt to balance two worlds, I couldn’t help but find the plot a bit schizoid, uneven in its pacing, and just somehow pedestrian.

(And, no Mr. Weir, I’m not saying I could do any better myself so, yes, I will shut up soon.)

I thought Lukas Haas, who played the Amish boy, was one of the most compelling child actors I’d ever seen.  I’d put him right up there — wherever that is — with Max Pomeranc (Searching for Bobby Fischer), Mara Wilson (Matilda), Cary Guffey (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Enzo Staiola (the kid from The Bicycle Thief . . . or Bicycle Thieves, if you want to get all uppity about translating Italian).

It’s also a great movie for playing:  “Oh, I know that actor!  What else were they in?”  Pretty much everyone involved is just about obscure enough to make this game a challenge.

What else can I compliment?  While I’m more often a fan of his son Jean Michel’s music, Maurice Jarre’s synthetic effort was very interesting.  An odd hybrid of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, the string-and-pad-heavy music successfully evokes the emotional core of most scenes.  To its further credit, it never sounds especially dated or, almost as miraculously, out of place against the backdrop of rural farm life.

But while I enjoyed the score enough to seek out the soundtrack album, my quest for the movie itself has come to an end.  I’m glad to have seen Witness again, and it wasn’t a waste of my time, but neither was it compelling enough for me to crave a copy of my own.  To paraphrase The Simpsons paraphrasing Witness itself:  ‘Tis a fine rental, English, but ‘tis no purchase.

* * *

Rated 14A for language, nudity, and violence

112 minutes

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