“If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay. Or you’d have to leave.” - John Brook
Some people are just born into two separate worlds. Be it by birthright or circumstance, there are some people who can never cross each other’s path. It is the way of the universe, some are born poor, some are born rich, some are born white, some are born black. Forces of genetics, society and culture mixing together to keep people from ever meeting, from ever falling love.
Never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo - Shakespeare
Tragic love stories like, Romeo and Juliet, are tragic because two people from different places in the world ignore the messages of society, the wishes of their families and throw themselves face first into love, damn be the consequences. But the forces of the universe can’t be ignored. As in Romeo and Juliet, the tragic death of these lovers was simply the universe returning order to that which had been broken.
Witness, a crime thriller directed by Peter Weir, is really a tragic love story that is caused not by the negligence of the universe’s forces but by obeying them.
While traveling to visit her sister, Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), an Amish widow, son Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas) witnesses a murder. The pair is greeted by battle-worn Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) who has been assigned to the case. John questions Samuel about the murder hoping that he can point out the men responsible for the crime.
Samuel proves unable to identify the culprit until he sees a newspaper clipping of James McFee (Danny Glover) a narc office who was involved in fishy case involving amphetamines. John takes the information, unbeknownst to him, to his crooked Chief Paul Schaeffer (Joseph Sommer).
Leaving the station, John is ambushed and wounded by McFee and is forced to leave the city with Rachel and Samuel. Before he leaves, he tells his partner to destroy the files that they have on the case, in order to protect them. They end up escaping to Rachel’s home on an Amish farm.
Taken in by the Amish community, while recuperating from his wounds, John does his best to stay within the wishes and commandments of its people, even helping with their daily chores.
Impressed with John’s commitment, Rachel’s father-in-law Eli (Rubes), accepts John presence. That is until John’s budding romance with Rachel becomes more apparent.
While John is fixing his car, Rachel and him share an intimate dance, which is cut short by Rachel’s father.
The acting in this scene is great. The way both actors use subtle emoting and non-verbal language to express a mutual attraction.
Rachel’s father, a respected elder in the community, fears that his daughter will embarrass him with her actions and may be banished altogether.
Just as Rachel allows herself to experiences some of John’s culture, by dancing to his music, John also tries his best to experience Rachel’s culture, by taking part in a barn raising. Both of them seeing if they can in fact live in the other’s world.
At the barn raising, Rachel serves John first at Lunch. Announcing to the whole community her feelings for John. That night John walks in on Rachel sponge bathing. Rachel turns and stands half-naked before him, inviting him to copulate their love.
However, John rejects her advance and walks away. The next morning explaining “If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay. Or you’d have to leave.”
While in town to contact his partner for information, he find out that his partner had been murder. Angry, john calls the Chief and tells him that he is coming for him. Still fuming from his partner’s death, John fights a couple locals who are harassing the Amish, who are pacifist.
The fight is reported to the local police. Knowing that fight has blown his cover, John decides to leave the next morning. When Rachel hears the news of John pending departure, she finally makes her choice to be with him, removing her bonnet and running to him in the field where they share a passionate kiss.
The Chief and McFee finally catch up to John and engage him in a fire fight, until only John and the Chief remain. The Chief then takes Rachel hostage, as a last resort, but is stopped when the whole Amish community confront him. The Chief knows he can’t kill everyone and get away with it, so he surrenders to John.
The thriller part of Witness is much less impactful than the love story at its core. Throughout the film, John and Rachel share many scenes where they clearly want to act on their feelings, but they know that a love between them can never be. Each capable of living in each other’s worlds, but both unable to live in the same one. Where as Rachel made the choice to be with John in the field, John had already made his choice when he fought the bigoted locals. Rachel knows that John could never be a part of the Amish society and after being terrorized by the Chief and his goons knows that she will never be able to survive in John’s world. The gravity of their cultures and life experiences to strong to let them fully embrace their love.
The road behind John, visually represent both of his options. To stay with Rachel’s and live on the farm or to leave back to the place he belongs. In the end, it is Rachel who makes the choice for him.
Witness, was the movie that helped Harrison Ford breakaway from his away from the Science fiction actor label and earned him his first Oscar nominations. Ford and McGillis both contribute understated and controlled performances. Witness is a beautifully written and directed low stakes thriller, with a captivating and heartbreaking love story at its core.
In a sentence
The Witness is a tragic love story, inside a competent thriller, about two people from different worlds, who can’t overcome the vast cultural gap between them.
Rotten tomatoes: 91%
My Rating: 4.5 Spins Out Of 5
“You can escape purgatory, but you can’t escape Hell.” - Priest in My Left Foot
This has been day 9 of 30 VHS In 30 DAYS. My journey to the center of VHS Hell. Special thanks to I Luv Video in Austin, The World’s Largest Video Store, for being my spiritual and literal guide through VHS purgatory.