Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Witness

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience, where I occasionally contribute.

Peter Weir's Witness is one of those films whose reputation precedes it. The movie was a HUGE hit upon its release in 1985, and also received the Oscar seal of approval, with eight nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (for Harrison Ford) and winning two including Best Original Screenplay. Everyone I know who was an adult when it was released LOVES Witness - especially, perhaps, my mother, who has had a crush on Harrison Ford ever since Star Wars. So, you could say I went into this viewing with high expectations.

But then, the expectations game is funny. Because Witness is most often described as a thriller, and somehow I got it in my head that Witness is about what happens when Ford's Detective John Book investigates a killing in the Amish community, NOT what happens when a young Amish boy is the sole witness to a murder in a train station and Book must protect him while kind-of undercover in the Amish community. The film is really only a thriller for both its opening and closing 20 minutes. The rest of it, though, is really a quiet drama introducing people to Amish culture in the broadest of subtle strokes. I don't know how much my expectations got in the way of my enjoyment of the film (and to be clear, I did like it), but up until the last act I kept wondering if this was one of those "you really had to be there" hits that spoke to something ineffable in the culture at the time of its release.

Thankfully, Weir was working with the genius John Seale (arguably robbed of an Oscar this past year for his beautiful work on Mad Max: Fury Road), who is just a fucking painter with light. It's here where the film most earns its iconic status, for me. In its best moments, Witness is some straight-up Terence Malick magic hour Days of Heaven shit.

Here's the weird thing. While watching Witness for the first time, I thought there were not a whole lot of images I would choose as my best shot. And then when I went through it again to grab some screenshots, I capped AT LEAST a dozen shots that stood out to me for various reasons, like this one, which I HAD to capture in motion as the light goes down:


And then there's the scene in the garage, my second favorite scene in the movie almost solely because of how stunningly it's lit (and also because it's the most purely charming Harrison Ford has ever been):

Best Shot Runner-Up
My favorite scene, though is the barn raising, which I could just watch on a loop forever and ever until I die and be purely satisfied. It is so good that for those eight minutes, I was ready to give up all of my stuff for the simple life of the Amish.

Look at them all, all over that scaffolding like monkeys on a tree in the jungle, each tirelessly working away, singular yet also part of a whole, separate but connected. It's an extremely pleasing sight to behold. I don't know what the Amish community thinks about Witness (if they even think about it all), but this scene alone is enough to put them in a very positive light, a close, tight-knit community of people who focus on life's simplest pleasures, who live off the land and have no need for modern conveniences - because maybe we really don't need them when we work hard and have each other.

But anyway, to the business at hand: Selecting the film's best shot. The more I thought about this, the more it was really no contest. For all of the beautiful shots in the film, there was one where all of the film's craft elements came together for me in a magical way:

This comes right before that lamp shot up above, just as Kelly McGillis's Rachel learns that John Book is going to leave, to "go back to his world, where he belongs" in the words of her father-in-law, Eli. Eli tells her that they both know it's where he belongs, but this shot puts where Rachel herself belongs into question. She may be boxed in to the hand-built Amish house in which she stands, but her shirt color ties her to the outside world, where John is. The shot is just as beautifully lit as every other shot in the film, but it's just packed with meaning in a way that stood out to me.

Kelly McGillis, by the way, is FUCKING FANTASTIC in this. She does so much with just her face and no dialogue at all, conveying so many conflicting feelings that she could not even put into words if she tried.... Rachel has recently lost her husband, and here is this man from the "outside world" coming in and making her feel things she maybe hasn't ever felt before, and at any rate is not ready for. It's completely to McGillis's credit that it feels like Rachel might actually leave the world she has known her whole life for a man she barely knows. For someone I only knew as "the girl" from Top Gun, this performance was a revelation. And to think this was her first major role! People who were there, tell me: Was there REALLY no room for her in that year's Oscar lineup? Or was it one of those cases where no one could decide if she was Lead or Supporting? Or did she somehow not get good reviews?!?

*               *               *

But now that that's all done, can we please talk about the REAL star of this film? Ladies and gentlemen, MISS PATTI LUPONE:

Rocking a mullet like nobody's business.
Okay, okay, she plays Harrison Ford's sister and is only in two scenes, but still. How many women could pull off this look?
NONE. THAT'S how many.


  1. I saw this film when it came out because I love Harrison Ford...like your mom. The scene where he says something about the coffee to the Amish kin was funny back then because Ford ad-libber from a famous commercial back in the day. She was excellent in the role and this role and the role in The Accused really showcases her talent. This is the film that also proved to the people that Harrison Ford could act. By the way he is excellent in Mosquito Coast. The Aamish were not happy at all and felt it was invasive to their way of life. People started travelling to see them as if they were a tourist attraction which was sad. I am certain they are happy that the film is now history unless you see it on DVD.

    1. Haven't seen Mosquito Coast but if you say he's good in it, I will have to look it up. I think he is really under-rated as an actor.

      I can see why the Amish would feel invaded by the film, but it's so respectful to their way of life I just can't imagine why they wouldn't be happy about it!

  2. "She may be boxed in to the hand-built Amish house in which she stands, but her shirt color ties her to the outside world, where John is." - wow! This is such a great observation right there. I loved that scene and I was a little gutted with the ending, considering it was against the choice Rachel made when taking off the bonnet

    1. I was genuinely unsure while watching if she was going to end up leaving with him or not. And I honestly don't know if one ending would be "better" than the other.