Skip to main content

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “full retard” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry. He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debut, breathes a life-giving, transformative spirit into the material that largely raises it beyond its more run-of-the-mill elements.

In essence, Witness is playing with the same “white saviour” trope Dances with Wolves shamelessly flaunted a few years later, but it would be more accurately characterised as “American saviour” here, since Ford’s Book is “English”, saving the traditional, pacifist, technophobe (German) Amish from themselves. Book learns simpler, more peaceful ways from the community, and doing a hard day’s honest work, recalling useful graft (Ford’s own carpentry skills) as well as taking the time for the romance that had always eluded him hitherto. In return, he beats up some obnoxious yobs and resists the urge to become Lukas Haas’ surrogate father (like Dances with Wolves, the worlds cannot, ultimately, meet, and Book must, finally, travel back to the twentieth century).

Interestingly, while Weir doesn’t reject the essential beats of the detective thriller in resolving the conflict, he is careful not to embrace the violence at the heart of that genre. When Book opens a can of whoop-ass on the youths, the director obliges a close up of the now-victim’s bloody face; what Book has done is horrifying, even as it is momentarily cathartic (Hey, you stupid Amish, why don’t you stand up for yourselves? Oh…)

Later, when the picture invokes High Noon (or Outland) for a showdown with the three corrupt cops out to permanently silence Book and his young witness ward – Weir evokes the paranoid, haven-less world of ‘70s conspiracy cinema very effectively, such that even off the map it’s only a matter of time before the predators close in – Book’s response is typically messy (in fairness to Ford, he’s generally quite keen to bring uncertainty and fear to traditionally macho altercations, even in its most comic book, Indy form). Book manages to drown one in a grain silo, before blowing Danny Glover away in a manner that’s so brief, it avoids glorification. The following confrontation with Josef Sommer – if I have a criticism here, it's that Weir might have taken more effort to avoid making it obvious that he’s dodgy in his first scene with Book – is curious, though, because I don’t think you’d get the hero using the boy as a human shield now, even to make a point (“What are you going to do, kill all of us?”)

Weir can handle action with panache when he wants to (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), but he’s much more interested in steeping Witness in atmosphere. From the first scene, in which a subtitle informs us that these retro Amish are actually in the present day, he’s intent on inviting us to experience a different pace, of attitude, season, and understanding. The most obvious conflict of the yarn derives from the framing thriller element, which ensures there’s an underlying tension even during the picture’s most leisurely intervals, but the clash of attitudes toward life is far more prevalent and encompassing. The very presence of Book is, as Eli (Jan Rubes) recognises, not merely disruptive but dangerous, from his influence on Samuel, with all the part-and-parcel corruptive hero worship and weaponry that comes with him, to the response of Rachel (Kelly McGillis) to a real man, one with real fists. Book represents deliverance from repression and stricture.

That said, and again, I think it’s evidence of Weir’s reluctance to go purely by the book of the screenplay, it’s gratifying that Rachel’s suitor Daniel (Alexander Godunov, the ex-ballet dancer best known for Die Hard, who sadly died quite young) isn’t remotely the repressed jealous louse you might expect. Indeed, he’s a much more winning, spritely fellow than Book, recognising his competition in a playful manner and observing Amish principles while clearly not always liking them. You can readily imagine this movie with a less skilled director and a star more focussed on emphasising the heroic beats; John Badham passed on it as just another cop movie, and he knew a thing or two about them (they were his stock in trade). Stallone apparently cited turning down Witness as one of his great regrets, but what movie would it have been with him in it? Ford attracted Weir; Sly wouldn’t have. His version would have been just as memorable as his Beverly Hills Cop. Cobra in a wheat field.

It may just be that Ford, by being so unobtrusive and everyman about his performance, is doing everything necessary to let this story breathe; McGillis’ most famous moment here may be her topless scene, and the most memorable scene between them is undoubtedly their dancing to Wonderful World on the car radio – the tune’s resurgent popularity saw it subsequently included in a British Levi’s ad campaign, the rereleased Sam Cooke version then reaching Number 2 in the UK single charts – but she makes a subtle, witty and soulful presence throughout. This is one of her best roles; Weir depicts the love story in sensitively low-key fashion, making it all the more effective, so it’s unfortunate that the flashy vacuity of Top Gun ultimately made more of an impact. Haas impresses too as the wide-eyed and non-precocious titular character, while young Danny Glover (a fresh-faced 39) was on the cusp of playing a borderline geriatric in Lethal Weapon. Viggo Mortenson can also be seen, in his first movie role.

As with Year of Living Dangerously, Weir enlists an electronic score to invite painterly contrast; while the results aren’t as striking as Vangelis’ there, Maurice Jarre’s work proves effective. Again, I doubt very much you’d get that kind of choice if this picture had been made in any other era. It would be all classical strings. Instead, Weir further underlines the manner in which this community is, in its way, every bit as distant as a futuristic cityscape (on more than one occasion revisiting Witness this time, I thought of Vincent Ward’s later The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, in which the modern world is seen through the eyes of peasants from the Middle Ages).

A director with artistic leanings tackling mainstream material naturally lends themselves to the middlebrow leanings of the Academy, so it probably wasn’t that much of a surprise when Witness mustered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Score, Art Direction, Cinematography (Weir was inspired by Vermeer) and Editing (McGillis should have got a nod too). If one were to be cynical, the barn building sequence alone, with its poetic montage, probably ensured such recognition; besides Screenplay, it took home Editing on the night.

I mentioned Dances with Wolves above, but the picture’s other relevant thematic aspect was also evident in the year’s biggest hit, Back to the Future; an escape from the shallow 80s to a more nostalgic time, when values meant something, even if that time wasn’t attributed an entirety of positives. Critic Pauline Kael didn’t respond well to Witness’s yearnings, pronouncing it guilty of “a compendium of scenes I had hoped never to see again”, and accusing Weir of having “succumbed to blandness”.

She also accused the film of failing to address the repressiveness of Amish society, yet it’s patently obvious women there are subordinate, and to underline this would be the kind of sledgehammer tactic she’d have usually berated; if Weir doesn’t deal with the subject head on, it’s because he credits the audience with sufficient intelligence, just as he did by electing to exclude a final expository scene between John and Rachel, against the studio execs’ objections. But then, my takeaway isn’t at all Kael’s view that “there’s the implicit argument that a religious community produces a higher order of human being than a secular society” (at the same time, she admitted “it has its allure, but you’re ready to leave when Book goes – you wouldn’t want to live there and get up at 4.30 A.M. and work like a plow horse”). Even Elli comes to see the usefulness of Book’s bloody approach (“You be careful out there among them English”). If anything, the director diligently emphasises the flaws all round.

Like Back to the Future, Weir’s greatest achievement may be the balancing of elements such that no area feels short-changed. The thriller plot satisfies, as do the arcs of Book and those he meets, and the resolution, melancholy as it is, is all it could be. And lest we forget, Witness was a big hit, the confirmation, some time coming, that Ford could lead a vehicle to success that wasn’t Han or Indy; he’d reteam with Weir for a more ambitious project, perhaps his biggest stretch as an actor, but unfortunately, its critical and commercial failure likely laid the seed for his retreat from troubling himself with much experimentation outside his accustomed wheelhouse.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.