It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Witness comes billed as a thriller, but it's so much more than a thriller that I wish they hadn't even used the word "murder" in the ads. This is, first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller - one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.
The movie's first act sets up the plot, leaving it a lot of time to deal with the characters and learn about them. The film begins on an Amish settlement in Pennsylvania, where for 200 years a self-sufficient religious community has proudly held onto the ways of their ancestors. The Amish are deeply suspicious of outsiders and stubbornly dedicated to their rural lifestyle, with its horses and carriages, its communal barn-raisings, its gas lanterns instead of electricity, hooks instead of buttons.
An Amish man dies. His widow and young son leave on a train journey. In the train station in Philadelphia, the little boy witnesses a murder. Harrison Ford plays the tough big city detective who gets assigned to the case. He stages lineups hoping the kid can spot the murderer. He shows the kid mug shots. Then it turns out that the police department itself is implicated in the killing. Ford is nearly murdered in an ambush. His life and the lives of the widow and her son are in immediate danger. He manages to drive them all back to the Amish lands of Pennsylvania before collapsing from loss of blood.
And it's at this point, really, that the movie begins. Up until the return to Pennsylvania, "Witness" has been a slick, superior thriller. Now it turns into an intelligent and perceptive love story. It's not one of those romances where the man and woman fall into each other's arms because their hormones are programmed that way. It's about two independent, complicated people who begin to love each other because they have shared danger, they work well together, they respect each other - and because their physical attraction for each other is so strong it almost becomes another character in the movie.