A masterpiece is rare.
Witness is a masterpiece. It’s a fractal: every part of it replicating the whole, endless repetition – microscopic, telescopic – no matter how close or how far you get – you are still confronted with the same power and emotional truth. It exists in honesty on every level: the crime thriller level, the romance level, the city vs. country level, the rivalry between men level, the atmospheric level (wheat waving, dusk, men hanging over the barn being built) … and also the small moment-to-moment level. Example: John Book picking up Samuel so that he can see the lineup in the police station – and Book saying, “Big guy!” commenting on his weight. Now: John Book is a big strong HUNK. Samuel is 7 years old. There is no way that picking him up taxes John Book in any way. But it is his way of making Samuel first of all feel comfortable, lightening the mood, but also, subtextually, letting him know: “You are a big enough boy to handle this situation. You’re going to be okay.” Harrison Ford plays all of that in that one, “Ooph, you’re a big guy!” moment, but the film is full of moments like that! It exists in the language (“He is going back to his world where he belongs. He knows it …. and you know it, too.”) and it exists in the silences (the phenomenal last sequence on the porch … which had been originally written to be full of words and declarations, Book stating, ‘I will never love a woman like I’ve loved you …” and Rachel Lapp moaning, “I love you more than any woman has loved any man …” etc. ad nauseum exeunt. They filmed it a couple of times, and then realized: Nope. You know what? Let’s not say a damn word. And so they don’t.
You could write a novel about what goes on between those two characters in that silent sequence.)
The film is full of indelible moments. The Amish men appearing at the top of the field when Samuel rings the bell for help. The car in the dark barn, lantern gleaming from within. The men at work raising the barn (and the music underneath that scene – go, Maurice Jarre – my post about Jarre here). Rachel sponging herself off. That scene could have been exploitive or gratuitous or soft-core Red Shoe Diaries erotica (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But the way they play it is freakin’ ADULT. Her almost challenging gaze. His shame-faced looking away, but then he has to look back. You can feel their hearts beating, you can feel the desire heating up the room. Her nudity is the LEAST erotic thing about that scene.
Let’s look at how delicately things are set up in this film, so much so that you don’t notice them. John Book has recovered (somewhat) from his wound and Samuel Lapp takes him on a tour of the farm. He shows him the well. (“It goes … it makes … it goes …” so cute) He shows him the silo and tells him how it works. He shows him the trap door. All of this will become crucial in the final scenes, as John Book sneaks around, trying to evade the murderers. But what becomes clear, beautifully, in subsequent viewings – is that it is SAMUEL who showed Book the way. It is SAMUEL who, innocently, gave John Book the tools for survival in those crucial end moments. And so the title of the film takes on even more meaning, more depth. WITNESS. “What’s up there?” asks John Book. “Corn,” answers Samuel. Notice the grace and simplicity of how that information is imparted. You might not even notice it. A lesser film would have just had John Book figuring out how the silo worked while he was under the gun (which is how so many thrillers operate – they ARE their plots. That’s it.) … but in Witness we are introduced, via Samuel, to “the way things work”. He’s excited to show John Book around and to show him the well and also to show him how much he knows.
It isn’t until later that we realize what Samuel Lapp has done, in that innocent tour.
In all of the great scenes of the film, and all of the piercingly wonderful moments, it is the scene captured in the screenshot below that is my favorite. The scene is the linchpin of the Ebert-Siskel review (which you can see here (it makes me really miss Siskel).
The scene is a masterpiece.
I feel confident in saying so because I know it when I see it.
Only a movie star can play a scene like that. And when I say “movie star” I mean people like John Wayne. Humphrey Bogart. John Garfield. Guys who could tell the whole story with no lines, guys who spent the first couple of days of filming cutting their parts down so they would have less and less to say. They knew that it was in action – and in the FACE … that the story would be told. And what Harrison Ford does in that particular scene with no language is a tour de force. Yes, he is aided by Maurice Jarre’s effective score, and by how it is filmed (to quote Siskel: “Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better”) – but when you get right down to it – it is the actor in the line of fire, it is the actor who has the job of making us believe … and he can either get it up (to mix a metaphor) or he can’t. Harrison Ford does.