20. Witness

Conflict is an (the!) essential element of storytelling. Opposing forces collide. A character wants something unattainable.

Basic concept there, but art is in the execution and Witness is a masterpiece. Peace meets murder at the onset, when an Amish boy sees a dirty cop slit another man’s throat. Any normal witness would be disturbed, and none of us would want gunplay in our garages, but the conflicts are better with the Amish. They do not fight, whether it’s war or a jerk on the street who smears ice cream on an Amish man’s face.

The conflicts are so well managed, juggled so deftly by this Oscar-winning script (from 1985; it beat Back to the Future), that Witness transcends genre. It’s both gritty cop movie and tender love story, gory one scene and steamy the next.

“If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay,” hard-bitten detective John Book tells lovely Amish widow Rachel. “Or you’d have to leave.” No matter how sexy Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis are together, and the screen practically ignites, they cannot give in. Forbidden love is conflict! Or check the earlier moment when Rachel finally smiles, tittering shyly because Book looks goofy in her late husband’s clothes. The scene is a relief, until Book kills it. “My gun,” he says. “I need my gun.”

It keeps happening. Book doesn’t just beat up the jerk who smears ice cream on his Amish friend’s face, he pounds him until blood gushes. Everyone’s horrified. Book is being hunted by the dirty cops, so he assimilates into Amish culture – wearing a funny hat to milk cows at 4:30 a.m., or lending very helpful hands to build a barn – but the climax is a brutal duel. Evil men with guns invade a place that only knows peace.

The telling is tight. A bird house breaks when Book arrives; it’s fixed when he needs to go. Rachel’s change from repulsed to amorous is totally credible, because it’s built by storytellers who understand the essential elements. Witness feels more like a great, short novel than a film.

Maybe that’s why his name’s Book.

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