Romanticizing Humanity: Human Nature in ‘The Village’

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I admit it, I am one of the few folks who loves M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. I enjoy the eerie and artistic cinematography, the beautiful, minor-keyed score, the suspense without horror. These outward forms reflect what I like most about the film: it’s thoughtful. And that’s what makes it worthy watching.

Covington village is a utopia, but the film opens with a tragedy, the death of 7 year-old Daniel Nicholson, and the question: “Did we make the right decision to settle here?” The villagers have chosen to sequester themselves from “the Towns,” which are “wicked places where wicked people live.” In so doing, they have also cloistered themselves from modern medicines that could have prevented injustices like the untimely death of Daniel Nicholson.

This dilemma prompts Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Lucius Hunt, to approach the village elders with a request to travel to the Towns in order to bring medicines back to the Village. He is denied, however, because the villagers never leave Covington—not only because the Towns are wicked, but because monstrous Creatures inhabit the forest that encircles the Village and hides it from the outside world.

Toward the end of the film, Lucius finds himself in the same position as young Daniel had been in prior to the beginning of the film: he is in need of medicine from the Towns, without the application of which, he will die. The difference, however, is that Lucius has been intentionally and maliciously stabbed. He is the victim of a crime rather than of ‘natural’ illness or accident. And it is this distinction that ultimately causes Edward Walker (William Hurt), Lucius’s future father-in-law, to grant the request he and the other Elders had denied Lucius at the beginning of the film. He sends his daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is physically blind but spiritually sighted, into the Forest to get what they need from the Towns.

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Before sending Ivy into the Forest, Mr Walker entrusts her with the Elders’ secret: the Creatures beyond the border are “only a farce.” And this is the great philosophical struggle of the film. The Elders depend upon fear and deception to achieve and maintain their utopia, their vision of the good life.

While introducing a deleted scene called “August’s Story,” Shyamalan refers to the Creature stories as “ghost stories.” He uses the phrase “ghost stories” to represent the kinds of stories that fairy tales used to be. Fairy tales and children’s stories used to be much more dark and gruesome than they are today for the purpose of instilling a fear of evil that (in theory) leads to a desire for right living. And this, indeed, is the purpose of the Creatures.

In the clip, “August’s Story,” August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) sits down with Lucius and Noah (Adrien Brody), who had both breached the village border and ventured into the Forest, to tell them about how the Creatures killed his brother. “It is not meant to frighten you,” August tells Lucius, “it is meant to inform you.” In reality, August’s brother was murdered by a drug addict for the drugs in the ER where he was working. The Creatures have become the physical representation of human evil. The difference, however, is that fairy tales also used to help prepare children for the dangers and evils of the world rather than hide people from them.

The village elders invented a narrative that makes evil a source entirely from without. Evil is in the Towns outside of the Village. People are basically good, but an environment that has lost its vision of communal good (the Towns) will eventually turn people into non-people, into monsters. An ideal environment (Covington) can restore and preserve human goodness and innocence.

Second-generation villagers have spent their formative years sheltered from the Towns; they have no personal experience with the Towns’ evils, and so to protect younger generations from the kind of curiosity that can indeed kill the proverbial cat, the Elders make manifest the the idea of evil through the Creatures, making the embodiment of evil inhuman. Again, the source of evil resides outside of the human heart; people are basically good.

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The Narrative spins out of the Elders’ control as Noah literally puts on the mantle of evil and becomes the Creatures. He torments the villagers by dressing in the Creature costume, killing animals and leaving their skinned bodies strewn and hung about for villagers to find as signs that the Creatures have broken the barrier between their woods and Covington and broken the unspoken agreement with the Villagers that they will not attack unless provoked. The Elders try to explain these horrors away, fit them into their invented Creature Myth, but they soon cannot, nor can they begin to guess who or what could possibly be responsible for these heinous acts, for they know that the Creatures are a costume and a story they themselves created and, until now, controlled through pretense, secrecy, and artifice, “silly lies [that] were not meant to harm.”

That Noah is the one to bring evil into Covington is of vital importance to the movie’s view of human nature and the problem of and solution to evil. Noah Percy suffers from a mental, or intellectual, disability, and is therefore unable to learn the enlightened ways of the Village. His innate human goodness is distorted and perverted by mental illness, and therefore the moral, intellectual, and technological utopia of Covington cannot save him. Instead of augmenting his innocence, Noah’s intellectual disability has caused him to be mentally disturbed. He relishes in violence and terror, and as a result, revels in the Creature Myth when he ought to fear it as the others do.

Evil within, represented in the film by intellectual disability, comes from a source that is also outside of the Village (like the Towns)–without (again) the aid of modern medicine, metal illness and intellectual disability are outside of, or beyond, human control. “What if there are medicines for Noah that could help him be still and to learn?” Lucius asks Ivy as they discuss the virtue of bringing Medicine from the Towns to the Village. The irony of the Village as a utopia is that it cannot survive as such without the very thing from which it has secluded and protected itself, the Towns.

There are of course, many strong parallels to the Christian Story within the film, especially the ways in which the secrets and fear of the Elders give way to the sight and love of Ivy and Lucius.

But when it comes to the human condition, the Christian narrative, as I understand it, teaches that humanity is primarily good and basically sinful. We are made in God’s (good!) image, and so goodness is first, primary. But our basest self, our lowest common denominator, is goodness distorted. Evil is within (as well as without), and it is within us all — it isn’t an anomaly. We do not, therefore, need mere social reconstruction; we need renewal.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Cor. 5:17

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  1. Adam Jones
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