Monday, March 17, 2014

Peter Weir | Witness

an open book

By Douglas Messerli

Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley (screenplay, based on a story by Kelley, Wallace and Pamela Wallace), Peter Weir (director) Witness / 1985

Peter Weir’s first American film, Witness of 1985, is a kind of shapeshifter, a thriller that is also a love story with a study of cultural differences—almost a kind of beautifully filmed documentary about the Amish communities of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County—at its core. Several critics, Leonard Maltin among them, found these various elements to be a war with one another, which he felt were “jarring shifts” that destroyed the balance of the film.

My view is just opposite: for me the fact that Weir so brilliantly is able to blend a credible (even if unlikely) work of art that provided its audience so many different genres is what makes this movie so watchable; I’ve now seen this small gem of film a half dozen times, and will gladly watch it again. It also represents one of Harrison Ford’s (as the film’s hero cop, John Book) best performances. Harrison’s handsome, open, all-American face, indeed, has always seemed to be like an “open book,” which is why he so perfect for adventure roles. But here, in what his sister (Patti LuPone) suggests he is married to his work instead of to a woman, Ford is allowed to be internally “troubled,” torn between his belief in absolute good and his perception of the nefarious ways of the world. He is an idealist struggling to keep the faith, and his sudden immersion into a 19th century-based culture of absolute belief, reveals to both him and us that the violent world in which he has been entrenched is gradually destroying him.

      That immersion into a different time and space occurs quite by accident, as an 8 year old Amish boy, Samuel (the wide-eyed Lucas Haas), whose father has just died, travels with his mother, Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) to visit her sister. Stranded in the train station in Philadelphia, the young Samuel witnesses a murder of an undercover police officer in the bathroom. John Book, assigned to the case, tries to query the boy, showing him pictures of criminal possibilities and even brutally taking him to a lowlife area of town to have the boy encounter a noted trouble-maker. Back in the police station, the frightened boy is forced to look through books and books of criminal figures in the hopes that he may recognize the murderer. When Book is momentarily distracted by a phone call, the curious Samuel wanders off, only to look into a bookcase showcasing major events of the police department. There, observing an old photograph, the startled boy points to a figure, narcotics officer James McFee (Danny Glover). In Weir’s brilliant direction of this scene, nothing is said; Book simply catches the look on the boy’s face and the accusing finger and quietly leads him and his mother away, putting them up secretly in his sister’s apartment, realizing he has stumbled upon a deep corruption rotting away the very world in which works. A call to his superior, Sergeant Elton Carter (Brent Jennings) soon results in Book’s near-murder, forcing him suddenly to ask his partner to get rid of the files, while Book, borrowing his sister’s car, speeds away with Rachel and her son back into the anonymity of her secretive community. He arrives only to pass out, near death from the shots.

      The intrusion of an outsider into their world momentarily terrifies the Amish elders, who insist that Book should be taken to a hospital in order to survive. When he, in turn, makes it clear that hospitalization will only lead the evil men to him and, ultimately, to Rachel and the boy, they call in their own doctor. Through home remedies, prayer, and pure stubbornness on Book’s part, he survives. And so begins a new story, in which he becomes immersed in the unknown Amish world while falling illicitly in love with Rachel—and, one should add, her son—both of which cause enmity between him and a local neighbor, Daniel Hochleitner (played, surprising well, by dancer Alexander Godunov).

     If Weir’s Philadelphia reminds one a bit of Martin Scorsese’s gritty and garish New York, the Amish community is a near-paradisiacal American landscape of well-built and scrubbed farms set among waving grains, to which Maruice Jarre’s lush score adds almost a Copeland-like mythology. In truth, the Amish of Lancaster county refused to participate as actors and, in the end, resented the publicity along with the troupes of tourists the movie brought with it. Most of the Amish in this film, it has been noted, were performed by nearby Mennonites. Yet Weir convinces us that we are witnessing, particularly in the beautiful barn-raising scene, the real thing, and only a hardened cynic could dismiss this celebration of Americana, even if it is hard to believe—within the seemingly realist constructions of the film—that John Book was, before he began as a hard-headed cop, a loving carpenter, a kind of Joseph-like figure to young Samuel’s Christ-like innocence. Similarly, he nurtures the child in a way that Rachel, observing him and the boy, can only encourage through her own love. When her father catches them dancing, he warns her that, if the relationship continues, she will be shunned by the community, and even he will be unable to communicate with her.

     The tension, accordingly, mounts, as the love the two feel must be rejected at the same time we witness the villains trying their best find the family and close in. In the end, Book’s very nature, his violence, leads the corrupt policemen to him. When mocked by tourists on a trip to town, the Amish men patiently and pacifically put up with the taunts, while Book goes ballistic, striking the assailants. It is the difference between the so-called “civilized” response (that of the police force) and the rural, religious (“uncivilized”) lack of response, both going by the book of their own cultures, that makes it clear that John Book cannot remain in this place. He is a man of the law, not of the Lord.

     His act also leads the three villains, Schaeffer, McFee, and another corrupt officer, “Fergie” Ferguson (Angus MacInnes) to the Lapp farm. Seeing the three arrive, Book sends the boy off to run to the next farm, while Rachel and her father are taken from their house under gunpoint. Book rushing off the barn to distract them, Lures Fergie into the barn, Book kills him by loosing the corn in the silo and suffocating him. With Fergie’s shotgun he kills McFee. Schaeffer, however, forces Book to surrender, ready to kill them all. The “witness,” however, rushes to the bell, summoning the Amish neighbors, whose quick arrival forces Schaeffer to give up.

     Book realizes he must leave, waving to the beautiful Rachel and her son, and even to Hochleitner as he passes by, making it clear that Daniel may now court Rachel in the Amish way.

     Yes, parts of this film seem to pat, too well-written and unbelievable. At other moments, the work gives in to easy sentiments arguing for the local and simple world over the complexities of urban living. Like Book, I could never survive in the paradise that Weir has made of Lancaster County. For years, as a commuter between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia during the very year in which this film was shot, I saw all sorts of illegal and illicit behavior in the very bathroom where the innocent boy witnessed the brutal murder of the first scenes of this film. And I grew up in a land of “waving grains.” Like Book, I recognize I am a born-urbanite who longs, still at times, for the false ideal, for the peace of a rural idyll, for a quiet family life. Don’t we all, at moments, Weir’s film tantalizingly asks, want something in which we could never participate? But most of us also realize that the two worlds can never be resolved, which is why Weir’s lovely fable is so utterly fascinating.

     The Amish simply wanted to be left alone, to become, metaphorically speaking, a closed book, uninterpreted; while John Book, is just that, an ordinary open book, easily read by all whom he encounters, a man desperately on the search for justice and love.

Los Angeles, March, 14, 2014

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