When a young Amish boy, travelling with his mother, witnesses a murder at railway station, Detective John Book realises the perpetrators were corrupt policemen. To protect the boy, Book returns with them to their Amish community, where he must adjust to their strict lifestyle and to his growing feelings for the boy’s mother.
Arguably Harrison Ford’s finest performance, and one of the strongest thrillers to emerge from the heady gloss of the ‘80s, this is director Peter Weir at his most adept. That’s because in many ways it is an anti-‘80s film, its emphasis on character, cultural identity, mood and the diversity and conflicts of American life give it the weight and purpose of those expert policiers from the ‘70s. When the traditional gun-toting action finally arrives it’s like a rude interruption. For this is an anti-thriller, much more about love than murder.
Weir is so good at containing big stars personas, and then drawing potent performances out of them. He has found depth in Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey, but with Ford he liberates him from iconography and lets John Book (what a solid, unshowy name) become an awkward, swagger-less, fascinating, lonely man — the anti-Indy. Weir also has such a feel for unusual locations, his films never bind us to the familiar. This strange corner of America might as well be Oz it is so closed off from the outside world, shunting the worldliness of electricity, music, standard clothing, normal pleasures. But this is not a parody, through Book’s opening eyes, it highlights a purity in their way of life. There’s one lovely montage in which the entire community erect a barn (spot the young Viggo Mortensen) a portrayal of communal harmony swelling to Maurice Jarre’s soft, poetic score that matches the gentle rise of the countryside.
At heart, though, and heart is what matters in Weir’s films, this is a romance. Kelly McGillis and Ford create a subtle, yearning chemistry. In one moment of poised perfection, Book spots the widow Rachel washing and their eyes meet, without a single caress the sexuality is more vivid and electrifying than any number of cheap fleshy tumbles. The action will arrive as the bad guys show up, and is as expertly handles as everything else in the movie, but you leave the film knowing it is about dignity, restraint, and the overriding theme in all Weir’s films, about a man who comes to know himself.
A back-of-beyond thriller from Weir, who turns his sharp eye incisively on America's cosy heartland.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan