Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Harrison Ford (John Book), Kelly McGillis (Rachel Lapp), Lukas Haas (Samuel Lapp), Jan Rubes (Eli Lapp), Alexander Godunov (Daniel Hochleitner), Patti LuPone (Elaine), Brent Jennings (Sgt. Carter), Danny Glover (Lt. McFee), and Josef Sommer (Chief Schaeffer).
In his first American film, Australian filmmaker Peter Weir created a hauntingly beautiful mystery drama that begins in a uniquely American, yet strangely foreign, setting. Released in 1985 and nominated for Best Picture of the Year, Witness opens at a funeral wake in the Amish community of Lancaster County.
We see the mourners shrouded in solemn, black and grey clothing typical of the Amish faith. The camera pans from room to room of the farmhouse until we come upon the grieving widow being comforted by her friends and neighbors.
Shortly after the funeral the beautiful and demure widow, Rachel Lapp, and her young son Samuel board a train heading toward Baltimore to visit Rachel's sister. It is clear from his wide-eyed looks of amazement that this is Samuel's first journey outside the closed community of the Amish.
While making a train connection, the pair is delayed in Philadelphia's baroque-styled 30th Street Station. In a shocking scene, Samuel witnesses a man being killed in the men's restroom. We see the murder through Samuel's eyes of innocence, making the horror of the murder all the more frightening.
Suddenly, Rachel Lapp and Samuel are propelled from their quiet Amish life into the hard and brutal world of modern day America. As they are shepherded around Philadelphia's darkest and meanest streets by police Captain John Book, Rachel and Samuel soon witness the brutality that tough cops must use in tracking down criminals.
Book soon realizes that the murderer must be a member of his own Philadelphia police force, Lt. James McFee. Book takes Rachel and Samuel to the home of his sister, Elaine. Then he rushes to a trusted mentor, Chief Schaeffer and tells his old partner that a dirty cop, McFee must be responsible for the murder at the train station and that the slaying undoubtedly stems from a stash of illegal drugs that have gone missing from the police property room. Chief Schaeffer advises Book to tell no one of his suspicions and that the matter will be handled by the Chief's personally consulting higher ups in the department and alerting the federal DEA.
Later that night, Book is attacked by none other than Lt. McFee and is shot. Barely managing to make his escape and bleeding badly, Book realizes that he has been betrayed by his old friend, Chief Schaeffer. Schaeffer certainly must have alerted McFee and ordered the attempt on Book's life.
Book rushes to his sister's home to protect Rachel Lapp and Samuel. Realizing now that he can trust no one, Book decides to drive Rachel and Samuel back to the safety of their farm in the Amish country. There, he hopes to buy time to figure out his next move and somehow stop McFee and Schaeffer from finding the only witness who can positively identify McFee as the murderer. Book knows he must protect little Samuel even if it means risking his own life to do so and it may come to that as Book is bleading badly from the unattended wound caused by McFee's bullet.
What follows is a stunningly crafted film that carefully balances the juxtaposition of two worlds. The harsh and chaotic real world of John Book with the deliberate and structured life among the Amish. Violence and guns are everyday realities of a big city cop yet Book finds himself drawn to the quieter and gentler life of the Amish and, especially attracted to the natural beauty and vulnerability of Rachel Lapp.
Witness offers a view into two worlds but in both the city and country there is the specter of evil lurking just beyond the horizon. Don't miss Witness and don't think you can hide from evil if it is tracking you down or staring you in the face.