[Editor’s Note: Welcome to Stream This, our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new recommendation every week.]
Most on-the-lam movies tend to be action-comedies, such as Hot Pursuit, setting a daring cop against assassins, grifters, and, occasionally, Michael Madsen, ending in a test of wills that usually decides the fate of a witness or some unlikely MacGuffin. What follows tends to involve explosions, chases, fist fights, gunplay, sentimental nonsense, and jokes that wouldn’t even pass the Chuck Lorre laugh test, making something that usually feels like a sloppy mash-up of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Die Hard.
This is not the case with Peter Weir‘s Witness, the Australian master’s Oscar-winning crime drama, though the film’s premise opens similar to the aforementioned breed of films. When a young Amish boy, Samuel (Lukas Haas), witnesses a brutal murder in the men’s bathroom of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, he becomes a target for the men who carried out the murder and, subsequently, the ward of the murder’s chief investigator, John Book (Harrison Ford). Plans to stash the kid away in the city change when evidence comes to light that the perpetrators may actually be corrupt police officers, which causes Book to hide away with Samuel and his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), at their home on an Amish farm in Strasburg, PA. As directed by Weir, the film becomes less about crime and punishment in the 1980s than it is about traditionalism and cultural displacement, themes that have been at the forefront of Weir’s art since his debut one-two punch of The Cars That Ate Paris and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Despite the pulpy opening salvo, the rest of Witness comes off as a mature romantic drama centered on the growing relationship between Book and Rachel. Now, the idea of a “mature romantic drama” might very well cause you to yawn so hard your bottom jaw locks in place, but working from a script by regular television scribes Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, Weir avoids the monotonous sentimentalism and idle imagery that these films are often typified by. Wallace and Kelley steer away from the “city mouse vs. country mouse” design and focuses on how Book assimilates into Amish culture, working as a carpenter and laboring alongside those who believe electricity to be the route to ruin. Weir depicts the Amish as a group just as contentious and apprehensive of others as any other faction one might find in America, and that the simplicity of their life is derived from practicing complex, physically taxing skills that allow them to work as a unit. In other words, Weir refuses to portray their society as alien or cryptic, and finds a dramatic bounty of fascinating exchanges and images in showing how, underneath the belief structure, the Amish deal with the same toil and emotions that city folk do on a daily basis.
Weir is also careful to not overpraise the “simple” life of the Amish, as they don’t prove particularly useful when trouble shows up. As Book and Rachel’s romance becomes more and more obvious, the dirty cops get a tip on their whereabouts, leading to a thrilling climax that pits Book against a gaggle of gunmen on the farm. This is one of Ford’s most seemingly effortless and naturally charming performances, and he does a lot of the acting with his face and mumbling delivery. It’s not so often, however, that they’ve proven so revealing in a such a subtle performance. Harrison makes Book less a hard-nosed detective than a quietly inquisitive and brave man of purpose, a worker and a helper first and foremost. It’s what makes his love affair with McGillis’s single mother all the more believable and genuinely involving, as the script doesn’t defer to a simple “forbidden fruit” concept and instead charts their most intimate behaviors and gestures.At one point, they begin to dance, and seem to continuously be on the verge of making out, stopping and gazing at one another awkwardly more than once.
Weir films the gripping police drama and action with thoughtful, immediate editing, and he steeps the entirety of the film in a natural curiosity for humanistic detail. The director reflects the sense of a quiet way of life stirred into vibrant motion in several lush, pensive shots of nature shook by weather and wildlife, but the feeling of tradition being renewed and rightfully reevaluated by its introduction to strangers, non-believers even, runs through all of Witness. Its what makes “(What A) Wonderful World” sound so vital and revelatory when Book finds it on the car radio, sitting next to a woman who, more than likely, hasn’t heard a pop song before and is just beginning to learn how intoxicating life, unbound by belief, can really be.
Witness is currently available to stream on Netflix.