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« Visual Index: Best Shots from "Witness" | Main | Tuesday Top Ten: 1985 Favorites! »
Tuesday
Apr122016

The Act of Seeing in "Witness"

Peter Weir's Oscar nominated Witness (1985) was not chosen for our Best Shot series for its title, though that's as apt a logline for this series as any. The title refers to young Samuel Lapp (Lukas Hass, in a sterling child performance) but it neatly doubles as a surprisingly hushed command to the audience out there in the dark.

Lukas Haas figures it out at the police station

The story may spring from an abrupt violent murder in a public bathroom which Samuel sees, wide-eyed, from a bathroom stall but there's very little about the hit drama that is as in your face as its story beats and genre might otherwise suggest. From its earliest longshot of Amish villagers coming into view above a field of grass, to its sublimely casual farewell of its last shot (with two men crossing paths outside the home of the woman they both love), the movie is surprisingly gentle and patient.

Though violence bookends the events and the movie's sheer quality grants it that Oscar ready "Best" scale, Witness is actually something of a miniature. Weir focuses nearly all our energy on watching our good cop hero John Book (Harrison Ford, perfection), live among the Amish as he hides from the bad guys, figuring out his next move, rather than hunting them down. That atypical reserve gives the cop drama a unique contemplative charge within its genre. And Peter Weir and John Seale's beautiful work in composition and lighting keeps you entranced throughout whether you're watching barn raising, peach canning, or cow milking, or a very odd couple (city cop and Amish widow) hoping the other isn't seeing their longing. The light through windows and from sun or (often) lamps is always artfully caressing these marvelous faces (kudos to casting director Diane Crittendon for going with unknowns or barely knowns for the Amish characters and giving Viggo Mortensen his first feature film role). In another amazing shot about seeing, the Amish father finds his daughter and the cop dancing in the barn and they're lit behind by the lamp and the headlights from Book's car. It's one of the only shots that feel theatrically staged but it works because it's so heightened, the father's distorted suspicious understanding and the couple feeling guilty about sins they haven't yet committed.

But it's an atypical shot, in which we're essentially barred from looking, that emerges as one of this great film's most potent images

Harrison Ford earns this Oscar nomination.

In this phone call sequence, John Book realizes that his partner has been murdered. He hangs up the phone and the camera waits behind him as he processes and makes a second far more impulsive call. Though we're not seeing our star in the traditional sense his character and the details of his current situation are laid bare. The barely surpressed rage in his voice and his slew of profanities and threats paired with the camera angle seem to be protecting Book from himself, the way Book self-edits and is careful to behave as a guest in Rachel's home. The crisp details of the image (the textures of that borrowed Amish hat, the sweat on his hair, the minute shifting in his knotted neck) all add indelibly to this frightening flash of a good man letting the beast out.

Tellingly the very next shot of John Book, has him back in the horse and buggy, head bowed momentarily as if with shame. And then he explodes again when he sees a tourist taunting his new Amish friend (Alexander Godunov). Book may not be truly assimilating but his alien experiences are forcefully reshaping him in this exquisitely judged movie. 

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Reader Comments (10)

I love the visual recurrence of characters shots from behind in the film - almost always during some perceived sin or character feels guilt.

The one of Book after seeing Rachel bathing stands out, as well.

April 12, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

That is a great moment in the film as you could tell that Book is filled with grief and rage but also sees that the people he is with are being humiliated and couldn't take it anymore as he rightfully beats the shit out of those assholes.

April 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I remember loving Haas in this. With Tremblay and Wallis of late...I'm requesting a Top 10 Favorite Child Performances.

April 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMojo

Awesome shot pick. It was one of my short list picks myself as well as just Ford's left arm coming out of that buggy ready to get out to beat up those jerky tourists. I mean even his left arm had so much emotion!

Anyways, great movie. I'd never seen it and was a total blind spot for me. Really loved it.

April 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I'm not even a big fan of Harrison Ford, but I love the fact that he got nominated for this role. He didn't need to gain weight or fake an accent. He was nominated for doing what he does best.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue -- yes. Oscar needs to step up more often when a movie star peaks at their own movie-starness. Those performances are more likely to age well than gimmick heavy triumphs

Ryan -i'm so so glad. I'm actually surprised so many people hadn't seen it.

April 13, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This shot sure does stand out in the film. It's a bit of a cliche (or has become a bit of a cliche, at least), to see someone reacting to surprising news from behind, but that this shot actually stays in that position as he makes that next call, much longer than we'd be used to, really adds to the moment. And Ford's performance is incredible - that he's able to convey so much without us even seeing his face is unreal. He so deserved that Oscar nom.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Amazing movie and one of my favorites. It's actually disappointing to watch it tumble down imdbs rankings the past decade, while the occasional Reddit 15 year old 'movie aficionado' calls it "surprisingly good".

As an aside, Eli is Rachel's father in law.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAJ

Amazing write up! I do love that scene, all those people who say Ford is always the same should watch that scene alone - the amount of rage he conveys just with his voice and delivery is amazing. So glad you included this movie in your series! It's such a gem.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commentersati

Beautiful analysis, Nathaniel. I always enjoy Witness. And such great cinematography. A really passionately shot film.

I never post a Best Shot of my own, because I have no online platform to post it on, but I always play along in my head, and while I would probably have voted for the shot of Book and Rachel kissing, the shot of the back of Book's head is a really great moment.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

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