The Village

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom . . .

M. Night Shylaman’s 2004 film The Village was written and produced at a time when the United States was unilaterally invading Iraq under the lie that it had weapons of mass destruction. It was an elaborate fabrication of the truth that involved many experts and world leaders acting as rational counsellors for the security and protection of ‘free peoples’. The film features an idyllic rural community run cooperatively by a group of elders. The story involves an elaborate fabrication that is devised by the elders of the community to enact a consequentialist outcome, where the best moral action is the one with the best overall consequence. The elders devise an escape from a perceived wicked world and build a Utopia to ensure the best of all possible lives for their families. But while the elders are eminently reasonable, patient and kind they need to fabricate a danger in the forest that surrounds their village so that no one will leave. To rule through fear is usually the method of tyrants and this village could not seem any less a tyranny. However, the philosopher Lars Svendson warns of the colonisation of fear in our lives, stating that it is tyrannies not democracies that thrive on the politics of fear. This essay will explore the allegorical context of this film and its relationship to contemporary Western political philosophy and its utilitarian foundation.

The community of The Village is a close group of isolated settlers, running their own small society through a cooperative of elders. By their dress, houses and lack of modern facilities, the film appears to be set in the nineteenth century. The elders of the community wish to separate themselves from the outside world and its perceived criminality and insanity, which they saw illustrated in the murder of loved ones and their own fear of such a death. The elders transfer this fear of death subliminally into their community through a fear of the forest and the supposed creatures that it contains. This seems analogous to contemporary Western nations’ fears of immigration and terrorism; that our societies are becoming gated nations into which we barricade ourselves through our fear of others. The opening credits of the film reflect this sense of fear. Through the use of panned upward shots of bare, black branches against a sombre grey sky and haunting flute music, thoughts of chilling fairy tales about witches are introduced, with the branches also symbolising a barrier against the sky. Two loud drum beats emphasize a potential unseen threat. The music of flute and drum beat gradually crescendos to a full orchestral climax. The following scene opens on the villagers attending the burial of a young child who has died of disease. Set on the side of a hill with a wooden watch tower in the background, the diagonal view holds the crowd and gives the impression of a lack of balance as the scene shows a father grieving over a little coffin. The imbalance in the composition of this image appears to reflect the fearful imbalance that underscores the village. The elders have established this community as a safe utopia of communitarian and cooperative values but are wilfully blind to the fact that their deceit endangers the lives of other members of their community. Edward Walker, the leader of the village, hints at this moral compromise when he states at the funeral table: “We may question ourselves at moments such as these. Did we make the right decision to settle here?” But then he dismisses this thought: “We are grateful for the time that we’ve been given.”

In this scene, the main table is shot with a large house in the background. The house represents the solidity and security of the villagers’ world, with the table laden with food such as corn and bread in the foreground, highlighting such security and comfort. As sounds of strange animals howling in the background make heads turn at the table, the camera looks out of the village to a dark forest. The people look and listen forebodingly to the sounds and sight of the forest and its invisible threat. The camera then focuses on retarded Noah, who thinks the sounds are funny and laughs and claps his hands to the disapproval of the others. This scene sets the narrative for the main climax of the film. Noah is the danger in the midst of the villager’s safety, with the elders being the cause of his disability in that it was likely caused by lack of medical attention. In the context of contemporary Western society, we fear those that we cannot see, yet it is those around us that may be a direct threat. The massacre of students at Columbine, or of little children at Newtown, reveal how our obsession with security and scaremongering can rebound through its effects on people who are mentally ill.

The opening scenes show the villagers at work attended by sweet, idyllic music which quickly changes to show a shallow creek reflecting the vertical lines of black tree trunks against the sky. A figure dressed in a red cloak walks slowly across this reflection revealing red to be the colour of the unspoken threat. Like Thomas More’s Utopia, The Village is essentially an allegory, through which the narrative can provide a thought experiment on the concept of the gated community, or even the gated nation. We live in an age of a “War on Terror”, a misnomer that relies upon fear to enact it. We are gradually tyrannised through our long established rights as citizens being compromised by an appeal to security, and a media propaganda machine that feeds our fears of an unseen threat. Walker also uses such a technique to instil in the children a fear of the surrounding forest. When Walker sees a group of children outside the schoolhouse looking down at something with the watch tower in the background, he gently questions the children about it. The camera then gives a close up of a dead mutilated animal lying on the ground with the sound of flies buzzing around it. Inside the schoolroom Walker again gently and appealingly asks the children questions about the animal and how it may have died. The children describe the manner of its death and say it is murder. Walker asks them: “But who has done this heinous act?” “Those of whom we don’t speak have killed it,” answers one girl decisively.

In Utopia, reason puts the rational above the reasonable, and it is a rationality that involves its own truth3. The authority that rules over Utopia is responsible for the well-being of the community and that authority does not want its truth to be questioned4. Lucius Hunt, one of the young men of the village, nervously stands in front of the elders in the hall and states that, following the death of the young child from disease, he wishes to go through the forest to the towns so that he can obtain medicines for the settlement, reasoning that the creatures in the forest will not harm him because they know his intentions are pure. Behind Lucius, the door, windows, furniture and decorations in the hall are perfectly symmetrical representing a place of reason and judgment, except for a yellow cloak worn by the forest guards hanging on a rack to one side. This represents the community’s imbalance in that they must guard against horrors that do not exist. The camera then shows the circle of elders, also completely symmetrical, looking disapprovingly at Lucius but saying nothing.

Throughout the film the elders address the village problems rationally. This is illustrated when Lucius’ mother addresses the village in the hall about another mutilated animal corpse that is found. She stands in the mid-symmetrical point of the room, representing balance and reason, and shows care and concern through holding a young child. She patiently applies the logic that the perpetrator must be a mad coyote, not ‘those who must not be named’. Mrs Hunt addresses their fears saying that it could not be ‘those who must not be named’ as they are much larger and if they had breached the village boundaries, the elders would have known. Through this faulty logic Mrs Hunt allays the villagers’ fears because they desire them to be allayed, and she manages their panic, which would seem a good idea if she were not deceiving them about the existence of any danger at all.
John Dewey criticised utilitarianism on the grounds that its ethical criteria relies upon ‘holding that the morality of all acts is measured by their efficiency in establishing a certain end’5. Rather than the act being moral in and of itself at the time, actions are rationalised upon the basis of some future moral purpose even if the action of the present is immoral. When Lucius confesses to the elders and the villagers that he has brought an attack upon the village through going into the forest, Walker goes to him and tells him not to fret: “You are fearless in a way I will never be.” The elders’ intentions are good and the ends that they wish to achieve are moral. However, through their deception they cause harm to their children.

Bertrand Russell stated: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death…”6. Lucius is regarded suspiciously because he does not fear to think. Ivy, Walker’s daughter, who has also become blind through lack of medical attention, asks him: “How is it that you are brave when all the rest of us shake in our boots?” He tells her, “I need not worry about all that, only what needs to be done.” The night scene on the verandah is made extremely intimate through the mingling of the steam from their breaths in the cold air. Afterwards, in a conversation with her sister, Ivy rejects a utilitarianism that would allow her to have the love her sister, who had been in love with Lucius, did not receive. “The sacrifice of one love for another love is not right and I will not have it,” she says. However, while we learn Ivy’s sister no longer desires Lucius, none of them appears to recognise the desire and love that Noah has for Ivy, his closest friend.

Ivy’s control over Noah is illustrated in an early scene where she implores him not to hit people so that she does not have to lock him up. Noah has diminished responsibility. He is fascinated by the monsters of the forest and is responsible for an attack on the night of Walker’s eldest daughter’s wedding which had left mutilated livestock all over the village. Noah is bereft learning of Ivy’s intention to marry Lucius. He goes to Lucius house, where Lucius is writing, and shows his distress. Lucius realises Noah’s distress is about Ivy and he turns away from Noah to place his note back on the desk. The camera closes in on the back of Lucius’ head. He turns to look at Noah and the expression in his face turns to horror; there is no sound but only Noah’s sorry face. The camera looks down to Lucius’ belly where Noah has stabbed him deeply with a knife. The violent fear the elders have utilised by mutilating forest animals to scare the villagers has come home in the violence that Noah perpetrates upon the innocent Lucius, and it mirrors the violence that they have tried to flee.

When Walker tells Mrs Hunt that he has sent Ivy to the towns to get medicines for Lucius, she is overcome. However, this reveals that the true motivation for Walker is not Lucius’ life or his daughter’s happiness but his secret love for the widow, Mrs Hunt: “It is all that I can give you,” he repeats meaningfully. This revelation adds a new dimension to the narrative and shows that Walker is blind to his selfish intentions and sees them wrapped in innocence. The other elders accuse him of revealing a secret that he was under oath to protect and he declares: “We have protected here innocence.” But Mrs Nicholson asks: “How could you have sent her? She is blind.” “She is more capable than most in this village,” Walker replies. It then cuts to a scene of Ivy in the forest at night, sitting in utter terror with her hands over her ears. The camera draws away from this view and shows dense undergrowth, with the sounds of cracking twigs and howls. The terrible danger Ivy is in is shown in the next few scenes where she falls into a deep pit left by a fallen tree and is pursued by Noah dressed as one of the monsters.
The final scenes of Ivy running anxiously along the road and climbing the perimeter fence which is disguised by vegetation, is juxtaposed with a scene of her parents revealing what is in their secret box. While shown against objects of comfort and security such as a hearth and a kettle, they lock their door and take a key to open up their black box. The key and lock become features of a community that is supposed to be based upon trust. Ivy scales the perimeter fence and is found by a security guard. Although he surreptitiously assists Ivy, he is advised by his boss not to speak to people: “It’s a very easy gig Kevin. Maintain and protect the borders. That’s it.” This highlights the obsession with ‘homeland security’ since September 11, 2001 and the level of secrecy and opacity that is required of its keepers. What is also implied is the level of money that would be required to maintain Walker’s lifestyle, and its own cost upon the surrounding world, especially from the source of such wealth.

Ivy’s return through the forest mimics the beginning of the film with the forest’s black branches and trunks closing her within it. The stream again shows a reflection, only this time it is Ivy’s yellow-cloaked figure that crosses it. The final scene shows the elders standing around Lucius’ bed when a young man tells them that Ivy has returned and that she has killed one of the creatures of the forest. The elder’s realise that it is Noah that she has killed and while his parents sob, Walker tells them that they will give Noah a proper burial after telling the villagers that he has been killed by the monsters, and that his death has allowed their secret to continue. The elders slowly agree to this decision and Ivy walks in. The final shot is a close-up of Ivy’s face saying to the unconscious Lucius, “I am back.” This implies that Ivy has accepted the burden of the elders as well and wishes to continue it. However, as the film finishes here, one cannot but wonder what the candid and truthful Lucius will think about being complicit to such a scheme when he awakes, and the consequences of that.

While the trailer for the film casts it in the horror genre, the true horror of the film does not lie in any perceived threat but with the actions of the elders in perpetuating their lie. They will sacrifice their young people in order to maintain their comfort and security. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States, hundreds of thousands were dead, and their own youth were maimed and killed in extraordinary numbers. Eventually, six years after the film was made, it was revealed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; that the conspiracy to convince allied nations to go to war against a powerless people came from those who stood to gain the most from such an invasion, and that these people were a few of the wealthiest people on the globe. On second viewing, the film becomes a parable for our time.

REFERENCES: Dewey, J. (1893), “Self-realization as the moral ideal”, Philosophical Review, 2:6
Nancy, J.L., (2012), “In Place of Utopia” in Existential Utopia: New perspectives on Utopian Thought, Vieira, P. & Marder, M. (eds.) Continuum International Publishing Group
Russell, B (1916), Principles of Social Reconstruction, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1916)
Russell, B., (2009), The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Routledge
Svendson, L. (2010), The Philosophy of Fear, Reaction Press