Hit Me With Your Best Shot!: “Witness”

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If you take my perspective from childhood, Witness is a horror movie. Yes this film, like Pretty Woman and Blazing Saddles, is one that I saw way too young and with what I view now as an insane amount of normalcy. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

The on-screen murder witnessed by the titular Amish child is an abruptly vicious moment, one that I first viewed through my fingers. Mom at least had instructed me to cover my eyes for the scene, but the punishing music cue in the score by Maurice Jarre brought out my childhood curiosity. I peaked through my eyes long enough to see a jet of blood shoot from the victim’s neck onto his bare chest, and the young Lukas Haas to peak through the bathroom stall. It was like we were witnessing it together. I’m sure my fellow members of the VHS generation can also attest to seeing similar shocking moments at far too young an age, considering we were among the first to have ready accessibility to movie mayhem. But this scene was a formative introduction to the power of cinematic violence – while I’d been taunted by the promise of Freddy Krueger, for the life of me I can’t remember seeing an actually violent scene before this one.

Perhaps I wasn’t too traumatized, because I remember falling asleep later in the film. Forgive seven-year-old me for not being intrigued by Witness‘s developing themes of pacifism and brutality.

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The sudden flashes of glamorized harsh violence are contrasted throughout with the elegiac Amish environment, interrupting the almost fetishization of the Amish peacefulness. Cinematographer John Seale, Oscar-nominated here and more recently for Mad Max: Fury Road, uses lighting to paint sin as lurid (the red of a car light, the brown grime of the city) and goodness as pure (the uncomplicated raising of a barn). It’s the same kind of binaries of good and evil, sinner and saint that the screenplay is so fascinated with.

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The film, like its hero John Book, falls somewhere in the muddy middle: fascinated by the allure of peace, but complacent to the cycle of violence. He may have ultimately stopped the villain with righteousness instead of bullets, but by leaving the Amish settlement, he hasn’t been fully taken in by the mystique. The film feels oddly inconclusive about its subject, perhaps even passive.

How does this influence my choice of Best Shot?

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How does violence affect a child? This occurs after the murder, where Samuel had been depicted only obscured momentarily by a stall door, but directly. Here Samuel is shrouded in darkness, barely visible as Book shoves a suspect in his face, reigniting the fear of what he witnessed. The moment not only speaks to the impact of violence on the psyche, but of how the lingering effects of torment can outweigh the initial moment of white-hot panic. It’s an unambivalently grim shot that says more about the power of evil over good than the film eventually says about good triumphing evil.

Luckily no viewer of the film is as traumatized as poor, adorable, hat-loving Samuel. Myself included.

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