An interesting premise and excellent performances by Ford and McGillis aren’t enough to save this slow-paced thriller that’s short on tension and long on an impossible romance.
Plot: After an Amish boy witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia bus station bathroom, cop John Book (Harrison Ford) has to protect the boy and his mother while living with the Amish.
Review: Witness was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 1986 Academy Awards ceremony, winning two for Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay. Based on this pedigree, the premise and my mother’s glowing movie review, I had to check it out.
Witness has an interesting, fish-out-of-water premise – a big-time cop has to live with the Amish. It’s rife with comic potential, which shouldn’t be in what is set up as a gritty thriller. However, some mild comedy bits are sprinkled into what ultimately is a love story. That is the biggest downfall of the movie – the love story. Because you know it can’t happen. Ford’s character isn’t going to live with the Amish. His entire time there, the Amish folk constantly look at him sternly or outright tell him he doesn’t belong. Kelly McGillis’ character isn’t going to live in Philly – she is too indoctrinated in the Amish way. Ford’s character himself says it isn’t going to happen. So, why is this movie 112 minutes?
I mean, yes, there is a thriller aspect, and it has to do with dirty cops, and it’s interesting to see Danny Glover play a bad guy. However, it seems almost like an afterthought – like, they keep going back to the dirty cops looking for Ford, and I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s this part to the story as well.” Like, I forgot about it. Watching this movie, you’d forget about it too – it’s all Harrison Ford dancing with Kelly McGillis to a song from his car radio. Or Harrison Ford helping the Amish build a barn. The thriller part? Yeah, that’s there too, but it feels like an afterthought.
Which isn’t to say the movie is garbage. I don’t know much about the Amish way of life, but I’m guessing what’s depicted in the film is somewhat close. Ford’s character is believable, and Harrison always does a good job. Kelly McGillis is terrific. Lukas Haas is a revelation as the Amish boy who witnesses the murder. The late Jan Rubes is a hidden gem as the elderly patriarch of McGillis’ family. There are good performances all around. It’s just stuck in this wobbly mire of a story.
As for the other technical aspects, there’s not much for me to say. Cinematography is pretty good (nominated for an Oscar), costuming is on point, score is not memorable. I can see what little action there is, and there’s the surreal death of one of the bad guys by smothering with corn. There are a lot of longing looks between Ford and McGillis, so if that’s your bag, you’re in luck.
In my opinion, Witness is very overrated. It’s not terrible; the film has enough production value, and the first half hour in Philadelphia is very gripping. However, as soon as Ford starts hanging out with the Amish, this movie does a nose-dive. And let me tell you, he’s hanging out with them for most of the film.