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're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake

The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

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.