That Moment In ‘Witness’ When Samuel Spots The Killer
Witness is a 1985 thriller about a young Amish boy is sole witness to a murder; policeman John Book goes into hiding in Amish country to protect him until the trial.
By the middle of the 1980s Harrison Ford was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, being part of both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises, making him arguably the most successful action star of his time … and he was only getting started. Amid these huge blockbusters though, he snuck in a few not-so-iconicy titles that offered him a chance to spread his wings a bit in terms of diverse characters, such as the now beloved Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, however it was with Peter Weir‘s Witness where he finally earned some real acting cred, earning himself his only Academy Award acting nomination so far … though I smell me a Governors Award coming soon.
Either way, Witness had film critics slathering all kinds of love upon and it did pretty darned well at the box office, despite no Wookies and and a decided lack of a fedora, though there’s plenty of straw hats. Ford deserves all the credit he gets, delivering a smart, impactful performance that relies on the actor’s considerable charms and intensity in all new ways, his interpretation on screen much more reserved that what we’d, at that time, came to expect. And really, aside from his great work, the movie itself is a terrific story, well-directed and acted with a supporting cast that make this still one of the best movies about, well, the Amish, ever made, but also cop thrillers in general. Let’s take a look.
Young, recently widowed Amish mother Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas) travel by train through Pennsylvania, headed to see Rachel’s sister. At a stop in Philadelphia, making a connection, the boy heads to the restroom and while there, happens to secretly witnesses a murder. What a pisser. Assigned to the case is Detective John Book (Ford), who is stunned when the boy, while in the station, makes a certain revelation that has profound effect. Circumstance as they are, Booker fears for the boy’s life and goes undercover in the Amish community to protect him while the investigation continues. Once there though, he develops a powerful relationship with these earnest and hard-working men and women, including Samuel, but especially Rachel (making her the second woman of this name in movies to do so). Wanna know what happens? Watch the dang movie. However, let’s get back to that moment in the office, ‘cus, well, it’s pretty friggin’ sweet.
THAT MOMENT IN
At around the twenty-five minute mark, after some very affecting setup and development, Book brings Rachel and Samuel to the crowded police station, this after the mother and son spent the night at his sister’s house. Once, there, we witness (ha) a terrific moment of suspense that in modern film would undoubtedly get trimmed to a few seconds but here runs an astonishing three full minutes, unspooling with a deliciously slow burn.
It begins with Book flipping through mug shots with the boy, the two appearing bored, but the image clearly establishing a trust already bound between them. There is office chatter and noises all about and Book gets a call he’s gotta take. Samuel is lulled out of his chair while Book talks, hesitantly approaching a woman detective offering him a cookie before he begins wandering about the crowded office where we see a busy room full of cops and criminals, he navigating his way to a trophy case against the far wall. It’s here where the boy makes a startling discovery, one I’ll leave for you to find out on your own.
Meanwhile, as the boy gawks at the contents within, Book is still on the phone but sees the boy quietly trying to get his attention. Noticing the sheer panic in the kid’s eyes, he hangs up and casually walks to the child and kneels beside him. Samuel then nervously extends a finger at the glass cabinet and points to something inside, which prompts Book to gently close his own hand around the boy’s so as no one can see what he’s doing, nodding softly so Sam knows he understands. End scene.
Whoa, this is a good. Hardly any dialogue is spoken throughout the moment, the action alone driving the momentum, and even that is purposefully slow, and yet, everything about this is brimming with suspense. Weir toys with our expectation, realizing that we as an audience aren’t going to accept a boring mugshot montage without payoff, and yet, instead of letting that be the hook to swing the story on, he gives it a twist, physically leading us away from the photographs and into a waist-high view of the world this little boy lives in, a place he is wholly unfamiliar, yet eager to explore. As are we. Why are we walking through the station? Why are we leaving Book? Ford’s the star? What’s happening?
That it remains word-free is another indication that Weir trusts us explicitly, that as a filmmaker, he has full control over the medium and allows us to solve the situation on the visuals alone, something perhaps current films would lack the courage to do, giving the scene a run of unnecessary expositional dialogue. Why do so many films these days fear silence?
When you watch this, and you must, notice how Weir moves his camera, keeping everything at Samuel’s level, the only time in the film he does, bringing us down to what he sees, and we get a strong sense of the space and compressing size of what’s all around him. Weir builds a sort of false sense of comfort in it, the station full of captured bad guys but also security with an overabundance of police. We walk away from Book, stripping us of the safety we feel in his presence, that this is, despite the literal definition of protection the room provides, not a thing we should be doing. It becomes about discovery, and like Samuel, our eyes search the corners for distractions. And clues.
It’s a brief little sequence, but it’s amazing how impactful it all feels, especially as it organically brings us to the honey pot and the moment of clarity, with Weir dramatically zooming in on precisely what we need to look at, giving us time to recollect for ourselves something we saw earlier. Is this the same? It’s spine-tingling. Add to that Haas’ sensational performance, and this makes for a very memorable bit of movie magic. It’s a great cinematic moment.