Just to prove that I don’t just watch cheesy horror movies (and that Hulu actually has more to offer than such films), this Monday I’m reviewing something a bit different: the 1985 neo-noir Amish thriller Witness, starring Harrison Ford as Detective John Book, a clean cop hiding from his dirty colleagues in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country.
The movie is unique in that it contrasts the grittiness of the city with the tranquility and traditions of Amish country life. There seemed to be a vague cultural fascination with the Amish that lasted from the 1980s up to around the turn of the century (take, for example, 1996’s Kingpin or Weird Al’s hit “Amish Paradise” from the same year). The Amish are, indeed, interesting, but I’m not sure what accounts for this brief, generational curiosity in the rural pacifists.
Regardless, Witness is also unique in that a large part of the story is a romance. Really, the film is more of a love story than a thriller—a love story with action-thriller elements, rather than a thriller with a romantic subplot. A good chunk of the middle section of the film focuses on the budding romance between outsider John Book and Rachel Lapp, a young widow and the mother of the eight-year old boy that set the film’s events into motion. Naturally, the tension in this story is that the two cannot be together unless one radically changes his or her way of life. For Rachel, that means rejecting and abandoning her entire community—a heavy price to pay for love, and one that will effect her son, too.
Book actually fits in well with the Amish thanks to his carpentry skills and his basic sense of decency and morality, although his presence in the Lapp house gets the tongues of the Amish women wagging about his relationship with Rachel. The fish-out-water scenes really come earlier in the film, when Rachel and her son are traveling by train after her husband’s death, with fellow passengers gawking at the pair’s traditional garb. That’s especially apparent after Rachel’s son, Samuel, witnesses a gruesome murder in the train station’s public restroom, and narrowly avoids detection by crawling between bathroom stalls. The scene of Book dragging common street thugs out of bars for the boy to identify is simultaneously humorous, shocking, and unprofessional (Rachel, understandably, angrily objects).
Of course, Book’s rough-and-tumble city ways don’t leave him entirely in Amish Country. While in town, some obnoxious tourists taunt the Amish, with one cretin rubbing his ice cream cone all over an Amish man’s face, who impassively takes the humiliation. Book’s sense of justice overrides objections from the elder Lapp, Rachel’s father-in-law (Lapp says, “It’s not our way,” to which Book replies, “Well, it is my way”), and he bloodies the tourist’s nose with great satisfaction.
That outburst of violence brings Book’s location to the attention of the crooked cops back in Philly, and puts him at odds with his hosts, setting the final act into motion, which I recommend you check out for yourself.
It’s a gripping film and refreshing to watch. At one point I thought the movie’s message was shaping up to be—very subtly—“the Amish are ridiculous and hide-bound,” but the movie steers away from that conclusion, thankfully. The only thing foolish about the Amish, as I see it, is their dogged commitment to pacifism. Turning the other cheek and avoiding violence to solve problems is all well and good, and we shouldn’t go around chopping the ears off Roman guards, but I don’t think Jesus intended us to take a good beating (or an ice cream cone to the face). The long list of warrior-monks suggests otherwise.
But I digress. If you’re looking for a touching, thrilling flick with some interesting anthropological insights into the Amish, Witness is a good watch. It’s also refreshing to watch a movie that isn’t suffused with social justice nonsense. Ford’s Book is a real man—flawed, but noble—and Rachel responds to his rugged masculinity the way a young, attractive woman would, while still maintaining her integrity and the traditions of her community. He faces tough decisions, and accepts the consequences of them.
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