Blu-ray Release: November 7th, 2023
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 112:25
Director: Peter Weir
While on his way to visit his aunt in New York City, a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas) unexpectedly witnesses a brutal murder in the train station bathroom. The detective assigned to the case, John Book (Harrison Ford), has the boy look at lineups, perps, and photo arrays, but none of them lead to an identification. Instead, the boy notices a photo from a newspaper article, and identifies the killer as celebrated police officer McFee (Danny Glover). After an attempt is made to take Book out, he, the boy, and the boy's mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) flee to their home in Amish country, where Book is forced to lay low among the community while his partner (Brent Jennings) tries his best to help suss out how high the conspiracy grows. Meanwhile, John tries his best to adjust to Amish life, and grows closer to both Samuel and Rachel in the process.
Many years ago, there was some review or article that suggested Harrison Ford would've been happier as a performer if he had the career of a character actor rather than a movie star, and for whatever reason, that idea has stuck with me ever since. Watching Witness, directed by Peter Weir in his American directing debut, with that observation in mind, the movie feels like one of the handful of films in Ford's career that successfully splits the difference, and unlike, say, The Fugitive, which also feels like it belongs in that category, Witness comes off like a movie that probably needed Ford's name to get it made, and is more fully offbeat and original, a movie where the presence of a star like Ford feels more unconventional (Danny Glover and Kelly McGillis as well, although their global stardom in films like Lethal Weapon and Top Gun wouldn't occur until after Witness).
Much like the Amish characters the movie's story revolves around, Witness is an unusually gentle thriller. Although there are shootouts and a small amount of violent action, the film has a peaceful quietness about it, an ethereal quality that persists even when the characters are still in the city. Apparently Weir was producer Edward S. Feldman's first choice for the film, and he is an inspired pick, moving the film out of cop thriller territory and making it more of a character drama with a crime backdrop. Scenes such as a violent confrontation in a parking garage and a climactic showdown with a cadre of dirty cops showing up on Amish farmland are undoubtedly tense and thrilling, but the movie's more electric and memorable moments are things like the way John shows Samuel his gun and explains how it works for the boy's safety, or the sweet and romantic scene where John and Rachel dance in the barn to his car's radio.
Of course, none of that is to say that the plot is an afterthought either, with the movie weaving deftly back and forth between John's sudden and necessary integration into Amish life and a thrilling story about corrupt cops trying to figure out which farm John is hiding out on. Back in the city, John relies on his partner Elton to keep him in the loop about the manhunt for him, and it's a testament to how well Weir and screenwriters Earl Wallace and William Kelley use extremely brief amounts of time to convey large amounts of emotion. We barely see what Elton is going through, but between the script, the direction, and Brent Jennings' performance, his scenes are memorable and the tension is palpable. Furthermore, the contrast adds to the film's seemingly genuine interest and affection for the Amish people, with each return to that relatively peaceful world (aside from concern over John's presence) seeming like an oasis from the danger.
Throughout all of the film, including the movie's melancholy and wistful ending, Weir and the script accomplish so much with restraint. The idea of a relationship between Rachel and John is only barely suggested, in the way they look at each other and the nuances of the performances, and yet the small moments that are there feel rich and atmospheric. Violence is meaningful and important but shown only briefly. The only element in the film that doesn't click is a scene of John, fully anonymous as another member of the Amish when they visit a local town, unable to control his temper when some local civilians start poking fun at them. Aside from the fairly straightforward plot function it serves, dramatically, the scene could suggest many things -- a reminder that John does not belong there, an illustration of how his attempt to right a wrong only comes back on the people he's trying to protect, or maybe an example of how the Amish don't behave and an illustration why -- but it's one of the few times where Weir's intent with the film feels so open-ended that the scene sticks out.
Of all the major studios, none are as frustratingly inconsistent than Paramount when it comes to 4K masters. First, they release something as depressing as Grease, and then the next minute they turn around and pop out a reference-quality presentation like Scream. To my eyes, Witness is one of the better ones. Although this is often a soft-looking film, with a shallow depth of field that feels like it fits the film's gentle atmosphere, the transfer excels when it comes to overall amounts of fine detail and clarity. At first glance, that detail might not always be evident (especially in some of the darker scenes, lit by lantern), but there are some real impressive nuances in skin texture and hair during some of the movie's close-up shots. The film's color timing is a bit more of a question mark, although not necessarily the kind of question mark that many may expect. The good news is that there is no modern revisionism on display turning the picture orange and teal. However, the palette is quite subdued, lacking the pop that many may be accustomed to from new 4K transfers with Dolby Vision, like this one is. In the aforementioned dark scenes, skin has a pale quality that makes the image feel closer to black-and-white, and even in the green fields of the Amish farmland, the grass and sky have a naturalistic appearance rather than a vibrant one. Personally, this understated look is appealing, but whether it's accurate to Weir and cinematographer John Seale's vision, I can't say (Seale is newly interviewed on the disc, but the transfer is not advertised as having been approved by either of them). One thing I can say is a little suspect is color inconsistency between shots in the same scenes/lighting. Skin tones can go from pink to pale within a scene, and shirts or other pieces of clothing can shift slightly in color from shot to shot.
Audio options include a contemporary DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and two LPCM 2.0 mixes, one labeled "home video" and one marked "theatrical." For most of the presentation, I listened to the original theatrical audio, which sounds very nice, even if it's not as elaborate as modern multi-channel mixes. Flipping back and forth between the theatrical and home video 2.0 tracks, I could not hear any significant difference between the two. The contemporary 5.1 remix opens up the soundscape a bit, allowing the movie's score to stretch its legs and nicely accentuating the quiet and wide-open spaces of the Amish farmland (which is kind of funny, thinking of the additional channels being used to emphasize a lack of sound). Although I'm a purist and would likely default to the 2.0 mix, the 5.1 is a respectable contemporary upgrade, even if Witness isn't exactly an aural extravaganza. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Commentary by Film Historian Jarret Gahan - Gahan, like Weir, is Australian, which is probably part of the reason he was chosen to record this commentary over any number of other historians or critics. He discusses the development of the script (which started life as a TV movie), and is quite knowledgeable about all key members of the cast and crew, as well as the production history of the film and the various changes that were made to it on its way to the screen. He also has a surprising amount of research on the Amish themselves, as well as portrayals of Amish throughout film history.
"The Eye of Witness: Interview with Cinematographer John Seale" (14:49) - This is a fairly low-key and relaxed chat with Seale about being invited onto the production, inspirations that went into the look of the movie, working in America and with American crews, trimming the movie down, and other odds and ends from the making of the movie, including a story about an important lesson learned on one shot with Lukas Haas.
"Show...Don't Tell" Visual Essay by Staci Layne Wilson (15:17) - As the title suggests, this piece dives into one form of that restraint that makes the film so effective: how often Weir and the script resist the urge to spell things out using dialogue, instead relying on visual storytelling and the performances.
"Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness" (1:03:54) - This excellent five-part documentary was produced by Paramount Pictures back in 2005 for their Special Collector's Edition DVD. This documentary did not make the leap to the 2015 Blu-ray edition of the film, issued by Warner Bros. during the period when Warner was overseeing Paramount's home video department, and it's nice (if expected) that it makes a return on the UHD.
EPK Featurettes (9:23) - Some archival interviews from the making of the film, with Peter Weir, Harrison Ford, and Kelly McGillis.
"A Conversation With Director Peter Weir" (7:16) - This interview is an archival extra from the first DVD edition released back in 1999, before the Special Collector's Edition.
"Harrison Ford in Conversation" (7:07) - Another archival interview from 1985, this one not from any previous release of the film (as far as I can tell).
Deleted Scene - "Kitchen Scene in Book's Sister's House" (4:10) - A single deleted scene, often included in TV airings of the film. Also originally included on the 2005 SCE DVD.
Image Gallery - 75 promotional stills.
Theatrical Trailer - Paramount's SCE DVD also included 3 TV spots for the film, which are not included here.
Note also that the retail release includes an extensive booklet with writing on the film by Dennis Capicik, Martyn Conterio, John Harrison, and Amanda Reyes, a double-sided poster featuring new artwork by Tommy Pocket and the original theatrical poster design, six double-sided postcards, a reversible cover with the same two designs, and a nice outer hardbox with that theatrical poster artwork, as is Arrow's customary treatment for limited editions. Genre Grinder received check discs with no packaging for review.
Although Witness was a major critical and commercial success back in 1985, even scoring Harrison Ford his one and only Academy Award nomination, it feels like the movie does not get the same amount of attention as some of his other movies (to say nothing of how little attention Ford's next outing with Weir has received on home video, with only a decades-old DVD to speak of). Even setting aside the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Blade Runner movies, I would say I hear more people speaking fondly of films like What Lies Beneath and Regarding Henry than I hear about Witness. It's a shame, and yet another cue for me to think about that analysis of Ford mentioned at the beginning of this review. Were Harrison Ford anyone else, I imagine Witness would be rightfully thought of as one of his best films. Although timing suggests this is a strike disc, preventing Ford, McGillis, Haas, or either of the screenwriters from being involved with it, it's great that Arrow has produced such a lovely 4K UHD for the movie, easily besting the Blu-ray Warner put out when they were distributing Paramount's catalog, which was a barebones disc missing all the extras from the DVD. Highly recommended.
The images on this page are taken from the Blu-ray copy – NOT the 4K UHD – and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images.