Blast From the Past: Witness

So, as a result of the best month of the year concluding in multiple celebratory occasions, I did little movie watching, and even less review writing in the past week.  I did see SATC2, which will be coming soon, and Toy Story 3, but that one is going to have to wait.  I need to dissect that  film within an inch of its life so I can discover the key to making the best film ever.  Until then, here’s a blast from the past.

This was an assignment from my film appreciation class, in which I was given a movie and had three different papers to write about it.  Unfortunately, I was assigned the movie Witness, because it was the only one of the options I had never seen.  As it turns out, I am not a fan.

This is a first-viewing reactionary review. After watching the trailer again, maybe I should give this movie another chance.  Or maybe I’m just tempted because Harrison Ford is more attractive in this film than any other, including Star Wars–yeah, I said it.  Either way, here’s how I felt about it a couple of years ago.

[Editor’s Note:  In the following, I keep referring to different question numbers; my professor had a list of questions I had to answer in regards to the film.]

The first thirty minutes of Witness almost did not even need any dialogue.  Up until John Book (Harrison Ford) enters the film, there is almost no dialogue, and the little there is, to an extent, is not necessary considering half of it was in a dialect I could not understand.  Nevertheless, I was able to follow the story line exactly without hearing anything, and I could follow the pace of the film even without music.  The shots in the Amish community portray a sense of calmness because they are generally longer than the rest.  On average, the shots last about seven seconds then cut to the next shot, no dissolving or fading to black, in answering question eight.  This quick cutting helps keep the pace up.  The scenes in the country, however, last for about fifteen seconds, except for the establishing shot which goes for about one minute.  The longest uncut scene in the first thirty minutes is right before the boy goes into the bathroom, and it lasts twenty-four seconds.  Rachael Lapp (Kelly McGillis) is sitting on a bench knitting, Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas) asks to go to the bathroom, and he forgets his hat.

For question five, a very large majority of the film is told through the visuals, and everything comes through crystal clear.  The addition of music did make the murder scene more suspenseful, though.  Still, I was able to follow exactly what was happening.  Part of that is due to the use of reaction shots, now responding to question seven.  Every emotion is portrayed through the faces of the characters, as opposed to dialogue, and everything I need to know is in their reactions.  The little boy’s eyes are a perfect example of that.  The viewer could see when he is scared or entranced. In keeping with that and responding to question six, I believe there were only two close-ups in the whole film, both were of Ford.  Peter Weir did a great job of keeping the movie from crossing over into the melodramatic, because having a lot of close-ups tends to remind me of a bad Spanish soap opera.

To answer question three, the film sets the audience up for a drama by showing the wheat grass blowing in the wind and the somberness of the Amish community, as well as the long, low organ music in the background.  Shortly after the establishing shot comes the “family” moment, as mentioned in question four.  The whole village is packed into a house where there is a funeral, which immediately brings the audience together.

The theme of the film, to answer question one, comes through in the first half-hour when we see the boy witness a murder, then we see the boy recognize the murderer as a man on the police force.  This is where we see what Book wants:  to keep the boy and his mother safe, as well as capture Lt. McFee (Danny Glover).  In answering question two, Book’s wants are basic in the beginning, but as the film goes on, he falls in love with Rachael, so he wants to be with her.

The film gets even better when, toward the end, we discover Chief Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who is supposed to be helping Book catch Lt. McFee, is in on the plot to kill the man, too.  To answer question nine, it is a very interesting surprise to find out about the corruption of the police force.  That propels the momentum for the ending of the film, which I do not think could have ended any other way.  For question ten, yes, the film ended effectively.  John Book stops the corruption from going any further, the bad guys die, the Amish are left unhurt, then Book goes back to the bustle of big city life.  To have Book stay or to have Rachael leave would have been far too unbelievable, and would ruin the whole movie.  If the bad guys prevailed, it would have turned into Scorsese’s The Departed and been a very different film.

It is the rising line, to answer question twelve, that makes this a good movie.  It is an interesting concept that lends itself to emotional reactions from the audience, and the fact that it takes a turn toward the end adds more life to it.  When a film is that far in, it has a direction, and the audience has an idea of how the story is coming together, throwing in a hurdle like that makes it even more exciting.

Unfortunately, there are no “moments to remember” about this film, in responding to question eleven, that stand out to me.  The only thing I associate this film with is the popular poster of Kelly McGillis chewing on a piece of straw in front of a hay stack.

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