`Witness': a movie about seeing that ultimately loses visual intensity

The tip-off to ``Witness'' is its title. The most absorbing scenes in this new thriller are about the pleasures and perils of seeing -- the most natural subject a movie could have, and the driving force of such compelling Alfred Hitchcock classics as ``Vertigo'' and ``Rear Window.'' Peter Weir, the talented director of ``Witness,'' shows his fascination with this theme during the superb sequences that set the plot in motion. These focus on a little boy named Samuel, making his first trip away from the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania where he has always lived. As his wide eyes drink in every new sight, the camera shares his mother's delight in watching the world through his fresh gaze -- and her horror when the boy witnesses a brutal murder, after which he becomes the target of desperate criminals.

``Witness'' keeps its momentum for some time after these events, bringing in a good-guy detective (strongly played by Harrison Ford) and artfully feeding us information about the killers and their new, innocent prey. But once the handsome hero is settled into an Amish hideout with Samuel and his pretty mom, director Weir doesn't keep up the visual intensity that marks the early episodes. Along with some creaky plot mechanics in the last third of the story, this reduces the film to ordinary dimensions -- a sharp but no longer resonant show.

Even during the movie's undistinguished stretches, though, Weir demonstrates the moviemaking savvy that has marked his career since its Australian beginnings in ``Picnic at Hanging Rock'' and ``The Last Wave.'' Perhaps it's his very newness to the United States (this is his first American production) that gives such a vivid glow to many shots of people, places, and events not central to the story but pleasurable for their own sakes. One scene, tracing a barn-raising party from dawn to dusk, has the studied allure of a John Ford set piece -- and this couldn't be more apt in a movie that echoes the structure of more than one Ford film by portraying people at odds with the social currents around them.

Also thought-provoking, if not wholly satisfactory, are Weir's explorations of value questions brought up by the story's setting and characters. Although he gives Amish nonviolence a good hearing in a heartfelt speech by a wise old man, Weir can't resist playing to the audience's worst instincts at least once, by putting nonviolent people in an underdog situation and letting the non-Amish hero -- who's anything but nonviolent -- avenge them with his fists.

This plot incident could be seen as a justified example of what social critic Paul Goodman called ``natural violence,'' arising not from institutionalized hate (as war does) but from immediate human instinct. Still, when spread across the wide screen, it smacks of simplistic Hollywood viewer-manipulation. The climax doesn't shed much more light on Weir's attitude, offering both a triumph of nonviolent confrontation and several minutes of shoot-'em-up mayhem. Take your pick: the inspired and the insipid, served up with equal eagerness to please the crowd.

It's a pity that ``Witness'' ends weakly, but Weir has always had trouble wrapping up his plots, a problem that shows up in films as different as ``The Last Wave'' and ``The Year of Living Dangerously.'' He's also consistent in positive ways, though -- especially his ability to escort us intelligently through physical and mental terrain that movies rarely probe.

The countryside that dominates ``Witness'' is less harrowing than the deserts of ``Gallipoli'' and less exotic than the tangled settings of ``The Year of Living Dangerously,'' but Weir approaches it with the same compassionate curiosity. Although he never quite gets to the bottom of things, his quest has fascinating moments.

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