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Last night I saw a brilliant movie from 2004: The Village, by M. Night Shyamalan. Its brilliance comes from the fact that it spoke to an important universal truth in 2004 and is extremely topical today.
[Spoiler alert] I can’t go too far into the description of the film and a discussion of its importance without revealing surprise elements that make it such a rich and compelling story. So if you want to stop reading now and come back to my post, this is a good time to do so.
The Village is located in a valley in the eastern United States, probably Pennsylvania. It is surrounded by woods. The Village residents are dressed in homemade clothing. They are clearly a close community led by a group of “elders.” There is a timeless aspect to the Village, that only after the secret of the Village is revealed you can recall the lcues that made things not fit a clear place in time.
The Village has an “agreement” between itself and the unnamed things that occupy the surrounding woods. The Village has a posted and marked perimeter and an elevated watch house and alarm bell to give warning if the unnamed things intrude into the Village. The unnamed things are fearsome and the children and youth of the Village have been trained by the elders to stay within the confines of the Village lest they and the Village be attacked and the “agreement” that protects them be vitiated. So there is both an individual and a corporal threat.
As the story begins, the Village is mourning the death of a 7-year-old child. After the burial, Lucious (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks permission from the elders to leave the Village and enter the woods to attempt to reach the Town where he has heard there is medicine he could bring back to the Village that might have prevented the death of the child and could prevent future deaths. Lucious believes that the unnamed things may leave him unharmed in his quest as his heart is pure and they should see he means them no harm. This, he believes, will keep him safe — as these are the highest values of the Village and assure the continued peace of the Village. The elders praise his courage but decline his request.
In the movie, we see the simple romantic lives of the teenagers who are seeking to form their own families in the Village. A love triangle exists between Lucious, Ivey (Bryce Dallas Howard), and Noah (Adrien Brody). Noah is simple and prone to periodic fits. Ivey is blind but courageous and has never let her blindness deter her from play and adventure. Lucious is kind and caring, someone who looks out for others — particularly those less able to fully look out for themselves. The three have been close throughout their young lives, and Lucious and Ivey do not recognize that as Noah has come into puberty that he has formed romantic desires for Ivey. So when it becomes known that Ivey and Lucious intend to wed, Noah attacks Lucious with a knife and leaves him gravely injured and dying.
Ivey is inconsolable. Ivey’s father, Edward (William Hunt) is desperately looking for a way to save Lucious to secure the happiness of his daughter. He asks the Village healer, Victor (Frank Collinson), what can be done. Although reluctant to discuss it, both Edward and Frank know that the only possibility of saving Lucious is to get medicine from the Town. But the elders have sworn an oath to never leave the Village, so Edward — much as he dearly wishes to brave the journey — cannot leave the Village without disrupting the cohesion of the Village. Ivey begs her father to let her go to the Town. Ivey is blind but courageous and has always demonstrated capabilities beyond her blindness.
But there is a difference between courageous and fearless, and Edward must now reveal something that Ivey must know if she is to be fearless: The elders have made up the existence of the ferocious and menacing unnamed things as a means of keeping the children in the Village and binding everyone together under the elders control. In a small building at the edge of the Village the elders keep the costumes of the fanged, spiny, and antlered things in red robes that periodically menace the Village at night to bring reality to the fiction of this menace and maintain control.
Edward shares this knowledge with Ivey in order to make her fearless in her transit of the woods. But he makes it clear that there is real danger in the Town. And it is the danger of the Town, and not the unnamed things, that caused the elders to exile themselves and create a new community in the Village. Edward tells Ivey of the family history in the Town where his father grew wealthy but did not understand the danger of wealth, and was murdered. Crime was rampant in the Town and peace and safety for the elders and their families could only be assured by leaving the Town and creating the Village. And the peace and safety of the Village was secured by creating the fiction of the unnamed things and assuring that the children of the Village, like the elders who took an oath, would never leave the Village.
Ivey leaves the Village in her quest to reach the Town. She is to follow the stream until she reaches a road, and then follow the road to the Town. Edward sends two young men to accompany her no further than the road where they are to remain until she returns. They do not know the unnamed things are fiction. They have been given “magic rocks” to protect them while they are in the woods, but remain so fearful that they simply give Ivey the magic rocks and abandon her.
Ivey is courageous and possesses the knowledge to be fearless, but the strangeness and sounds of the woods are unnerving. As she taps her way through the woods with her walking stick she falls into a sinkhole. She struggles out of it and continues somewhat unnerved. Ivey’s blindness is profound but not complete. She can perceive shapes to some degree but she still relies on touch and interpretation. She senses she is being stalked by something in the woods. We see a figure in the costume of the unnamed thing. Is she projecting this image or is it real? She dodges the creature and then returns to the edge of the sinkhole that she escaped and stands still holding out her arms and inviting attack. As the creature charges she jumps aside and it falls into the sinkhole and dies. We see that it is Noah who has found a costume of the unnamed thing and has pursued her into the woods.
Ivey now freed of her pursuer finds the road and follows it to the Town. But her way is obstructed by some wall with growth all over it. She can find no way around and so decides to climb over it. When she get the other side, she (and we) discover a large paved road and groomed grass between the road and the tall fence she climbed over. On the wall is a sign “Wildlife Preserve.” A ranger in a vehicle has observed her crawl over the wall and approaches her to find out what she was doing in the Preserve. What, up to this time has been timeless — 19th-century society? 18th-century fears? — is revealed to be now, present day.
Ivey doesn’t know anything but that she needs to reach the Town for medicine. She explains her mission to the ranger, who is amazed at the story he hears but is sympathetic. He tells her to stay there while he goes and gets medicine from the emergency supplies at the ranger station. He gets the supplies and returns with a ladder to prop against the tall wall so that she can get back into the Preserve. Ivey makes it back and it appears that Lucious will be saved.
The elders meet to determine whether to reveal the secret to everyone — that the Village was set up in a Wildlife Preserve, that the elders had created a retreat from a modern world of crime and menace to establish a utopian society, that the unnamed things were a fiction to instill fear and maintain control by the elders over the whole of their society. They unanimously decide to keep it secret and maintain their control. Unknown is whether Ivey will keep it a secret and what they may see fit to do if she won’t.
Will Ivey keep it a secret? She possesses knowledge about the fictional nature of the unnamed things the fear of which is basic to the elders’ control. But she has no direct knowledge of the Town. She has no experiential basis to make a decision. She is inculcated in the culture of the Village and the comforts of its rhythms. Her contact with an outsider was limited, but it undercuts the fear of the outside.
Ivey has fierce intelligence but has years of conditioning to believe in the menace of the unnamed things. That is why, while in the woods, she could not entirely shake her fear even possessing knowledge. Because Noah’s attack in the woods was real and not imagined, we are not forced to fully consider the conflict within Ivey between her rational and emotional sides.
The rationale for the Village is not mere utopian nonsense. The Town is a real place with real dangers. A decision must be made as to how to respond to those dangers. The elders opt for exile and a utopian society under their control — a control that is based on a fear of their own design. Could this utopia, or any utopia, exist without control based on fear? Fear of loss is a more powerful emotion than opportunity for gain. Making individual decisions consequential for the larger group is a key feature of utopian ideology. Peer pressure is essential both to conditioning and effective control.
You take the vaccine not to protect yourself but to protect others. You wear a mask not to protect yourself but to protect others. Thus your willingness to take a personal risk is not acceptable or allowable. Consent is not a thing.
That is the mindset of the Village. Can love flourish in the Village? Yes. Is there comfort in conditioning? Yes. And so “slavery” can be made to be seen as “freedom” within the confines of Village life so long as there is no desire to explore the woods or obtain the benefits of the Town.
“Everything in the Village, nothing outside the Village, nothing against the Village.”
Mussolini understood control. Orwell understood Mussolini.Published in