Viewer Guide: Witness and Reign Over Me

September 20, 2019 | Richard Peña

Witness (1985)


This week’s classic is Witness, the romantic crime-thriller from 1985 directed by Peter Weir.

Opening with a horse-drawn funeral procession winding through gently flowing wheat fields, Witness takes us to a wonderland hiding in plain sight—the bucolic farm land of Pennsylvania Dutch country. In this dream-like vision of a bygone world that somehow lives side-by-side with contemporary America, a young Amish widow named Rachel Lapp, played by Kelly McGillis, is mourning the untimely death of her husband. Accompanied by her young son Samuel, played by Lukas Haas, Rachel embarks on a brief re-entry into the modern-day on a trip to Baltimore to visit her sister, stopping off in Philadelphia to change trains. Although Samuel is fascinated by all the exotic sights he sees on his first trip to the big city, it isn’t long before his wonderment comes to an abrupt end: while in the train station men’s room, he witnesses a brutal murder. Suddenly thrust into the center of a crime scene, Samuel and Rachel find themselves in the custody of John Book, a hard-driving Philadelphia police detective played by Harrison Ford who’s been assigned to investigate the case. Despite his gruff exterior, Book begins to take a protective interest in his wide-eyed charges who are still in shock from the sudden burst of shocking violence. But when his investigation goes too deep, Book discovers his own protection depends just as much on Rachel and Samuel as their safety depends on him.

Also featured in supporting roles are Josef Sommer, Broadway’s Patti LuPone, Canadian opera singer Jan Rubeš and Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov, along with early feature film appearances by Danny Glover and Viggo Mortensen.

The inspiration for Witness actually dates back to a script for the Gunsmoke TV series titled “Called Home,” the Amish euphemism for death. The original feature film script was equivalent to three hours of screen time, so when it was optioned by producer Edward S. Feldman, his first request was a rewrite to bring it down to a more manageable length. Feldman then went on to secure Harrison Ford’s interest in playing John Book. Australian director Peter Weir—the talented director of Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously—was producer Feldman’s first choice to direct, but Weir was initially unavailable due to his commitment to direct The Mosquito Coast with Jack Nicholson. However, when Nicholson dropped out, Mosquito Coast’s financing fell through, meaning Weir was available to do Witness after all. After their positive experience of working together on Witness, Harrison Ford agreed to take over the lead role in Mosquito Coast, putting that stalled production back on track for eventual release in 1986.

For the role of Rachel, Weir auditioned several actresses, reaching the point of exasperation until he saw Kelly McGillis and was immediately convinced she was the right choice. It was filmmaker Lynne Littman—initially under consideration to direct the film herself—who suggested Lukas Haas to play Samuel after working with him on her film Testament. Filmed on various Pennsylvania Dutch locations, most of the extras were in fact Mennonites, the actual Amish declining to appear on camera but agreeing to work behind the scenes in other production capacities. However, despite eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and two wins for screenplay and editing, the finished film was not a hit with the Amish community.

Upon the film’s release, the Amish released a statement criticizing it as an inaccurate depiction of their way of life, and went on to secure Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh’s agreement to prevent any further exploitation of Amish communities for future film production.

Reign Over Me

Reign Over Me (2007)


This week’s indie is Reign Over Me, a 2007 drama directed by Mike Binder.

Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a Park Avenue dentist catering to an upscale clientele, whose successful practice allows him to enjoy all the perks of a high-end Manhattan lifestyle. Living in a deluxe apartment with his beautiful wife Janeane, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, along with his two young daughters, Alan would be  a guy who has it all—and yet, there’s sometimes a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were searching for something he can never quite see. One day sitting in his Volvo at a stop sign, Alan’s restless gaze focuses on an unexpected familiar sight in the form of Charlie Fineman, Alan’s college roommate and fellow dentistry colleague. Except, as portrayed by Adam Sandler, Charlie now looks like he’s one step away from being a bag man, trudging down the street and oblivious to the world under his headphones. Clearly, Alan has been out of touch with Charlie for a long time. Later, when Alan’s daughter asks him if Charlie is “the one whose family was on the plane?” we immediately know what she really means: Charlie is one of the walking dead of 9/11, a man whose injuries from that terrible day weren’t physical but were no less devastating. With his old friend obviously in need of help, Alan finds himself increasingly involved in Charlie’s strange life, a sort of adolescent regression mainly occupied by playing video games, a never-ending kitchen renovation, and zooming around town on his motorized scooter. And in the process of trying to persuade Charlie to finally accept the help he needs, Alan starts to realize what might be missing from his life despite all his outward appearances of success.

Also featured in supporting roles are Liv Tyler as a sympathetic analyst, Melinda Dillon and Robert Klein as Charlie’s estranged in-laws, and Saffron Burrows as one of Alan’s patients with a lot more than improving her smile on her mind. And in cameo appearances, Donald Sutherland plays a stern courtroom judge with director Mike Binder as Charlie’s domineering business manager.

Joining Saturday Night Live in 1990 as a writer and then becoming an SNL cast member a year later, Adam Sandler quickly established himself as an audience favorite with his boyishly goofy persona and his trademark specialty of comical songs, including perhaps most famously “The Chanukah Song,” which ultimately went on to be certified as a Gold Record. Needing a serious re-boot after reaching a low ebb in the mid-90s, SNL abruptly dropped Sandler from the series in 1995 along with his friend and fellow cast-mate Chris Farley. But later that year, Sandler’s movie career kicked into high gear with the release of Billy Madison, a box office hit followed by a string of successful comedies. In 2002, Sandler starred in Punch-Drunk Love, an offbeat change of pace written and directed Paul Thomas Anderson that expanded Sandler’s range into deeper dramatic material. Reign Over Me further showcases Sandler’s career evolution from comedy to drama with its gentle but stark depiction of a man struggling to cope with unimaginable loss. There’s always a hint of something dark inside the goofy exterior of the over-grown man-child.

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