The thriller Witness was released in 1985, and it was instantly a massive success. Recipient of six Oscar nominations and one Oscar award, two British Academy nominations and a BA award, Witness is still considered by some people to be not only the director's, Peter Weir, best production but also to be Harrison Ford's crowning achievement. Even though it was after the release of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones Trilogies that Ford also obtained a starring role in and which are normally thought to be his best performances. This alone indicates that Witness must be a deeply involving and interesting film.
The film Witness centers around a Pennsylvanian Amish community and particularly a young boy and his widowed mother; Samuel (Lukas Haas) and Rachel (Kelly McGillis) Lapp. On route to Baltimore, in Philadelphia, Samuel spectates a violent murder of an undercover narcotics officer. Ford as detective John Book is dispatched to protect and interview the young Amish boy and his mother.
After uncovering a clandestine departmental matter Book suffers a firearm wound from one of the associated conspirators. Book takes the Lapp family to safety in Pennsylvania but then collapses at the wheel of his car. John is cared for by the Amish community and the rest of the film shows his integration into the Amish community and his actions in resolving the corruption. When not exciting us with a tense shoot-out, Witness amuses and entertains us with Ford's misadventures and achievements during his time within the Amish lifestyle.
The Amish people featured in Witness are part of a large concentration of the same faith who are situated in Northern Indiana, around the Great Lakes area, USA. They can trace their religious origins back to the end of the 17th Century when Jakob Ammon, (Ammon-Amish), left the Anabaptist...
Peter Weir uses contrast to interrogate the concerns of contemporary society. Discuss with close reference to the film Witness. The film witness directed by peter weir raises questions about the concerns of contemporary society. These issues are exposed through the use of film techniques which convey contrast as two cultures clash. The audience is challenged to question these ideas: the opposing concept of individualism versus a sense of community; the use and abuse of power along with honesty and loyalty as opposed to dishonesty and disloyalty; forbidden love and the obstacle of two varying cultures co-existing.
The substance of the film highlights the concern of individualism contrasted to a sense of community. An example of individual greed is encapsulated in the “identification scene” where Samuel recognizes the killer’s image (McFee) within the trophy cabinet where he is displayed as a hero. Amidst the diegetic sound of the police station the camera pans to the cabinet. An extreme close up of Samuel’s eyes along with thought provoking music suggests his realization that McFee is the murderer. The point of view shots; the zooming in on McFee’s face and the non-diegetic sound forces the viewer to query his honour. The audience has viewed McFee as a killer who appeared in the bathroom washing his hands in a relaxed manner and saying casually “I’m just washing my hands man” suggests that his malicious nature is a part if his everyday life.
This individual sense of greed and self-interest in contemporary society is compared throughout the film with the sense of community and generosity of the more traditional Amish culture. The barn raising scene captures this idea effectively as it portrays the community working together for a common cause. The harmonious music; the wide angle shots; the cheerful facial expressions and body language and “uniform” costumes highlight their equality and sense of belonging to one group.
The vertical panning shot of Daniel sharing a drink with Book demonstrates the farmer’s selflessness although he is in “competition” with Book for Rachel’s affection. This contrast interrogates concerns of self-interest with contemporary society challenging the viewers’ perception of these cultures. There is also a contrast between how power is used within the cultures. Abuse of power is clearly evident with Schaeffer as he is always shown as a loyal husband and family man which challenges the
audience to question what is actually an illusion to this representation of character.
This characterisation is overturned when Book phones Schaeffer and says “lost the meaning did you Paul? Remember what you used to say, about dirty cops, somewhere along the way they lost the meaning”. This forces the audience to interrogate the power of an individual such as Schaeffer.
There is an illusion created within the film that the English society has power over the Amish society. This is evident in the penultimate scene “final conflict” when Schaeffer and McFee go into the Amish society to arrest/kill Book. Schaeffer and McFee bring along weapons as they believe that is enough to take down Book and the Amish community. A mis-en-scene with a low angle shot, dark colours and suspenseful music of Schaeffer and McFee walking on the road positions the audience to believe that the English have power and that they are going to take down the Amish community.
But this is contradicted when Samuel rings the bell and a long shot is used to show the Amish people stop, put down everything and run over to help. Schaeffer is defeated by the amount of people working together; this allows the audience to question how power is used in contemporary society. Although the Amish society appears to lead a passive lifestyle and “weak” as they are without weapons they are still shown to have power. This is evident when they are travelling in the horse buggy as they are always shown in a low angle shot portraying that they have power and aren’t below contemporary society.
This highlights the contrast that Peter Weir used to question the concern of power in contemporary society. Weir again uses contrast to interrogate the concern of forbidden love within contemporary society. The ‘Dancing in the barn scene’ conveys this idea.
The music playing is ironic as it says “I don’t know much about…” because Book doesn’t know much about Rachel and the Amish community. Rachel’s hat is missing which indicates she is moving away from the Amish culture. Book dances with Rachel and this creates sexual tension but avoids eye contact as he respects her culture and doesn’t want to disrupt it which creates awkwardness. The Rachel washing scene also expresses this idea as Book avoid eye contact again and rejects making love with Rachel. The next day Book goes up to the hen house that Rachel is in. In front of Book there is a screen door which is symbolic of a barrier of their forbidden love says to Rachel “If we made love last night I would have to say or you would have to leave” this again shows that Book respects Rachel’s culture.
The two world’s truly merge when book prepares to leave. There is a close up of bonnet as it is placed on the table by Rachel symbolising again that she is letting go and wants to be with Book. But this inability for the two communities to co-exist is symbolised also through contrasting scenes of the bird house. Early in the film and on Book’s leaving as Book is first impeding on the Amish community – breaking of the bird house, then Book rebuilds the damage that he has cause – fixing of the bird house, then restores everything back to normality – puts bird house back in place.
This forces the audience to interrogate whether these two societies will ever be able to merge together. In conclusion though the film witness Peter Weir is able to interrogate the audience by contrasting the concerns of individualism versus community, the use and abuse of power and forbidden love in contemporary society.