Noah raises Cain: The Immutability of Human Nature in M. Night Shymalan’s The Village

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M. Night Shymalan’s The Village is an underrated and unjustly scorned masterpiece (spoilers by the way), and today I would like to discuss some the philosophic themes regarding morality, society, and humanity itself. I think part of the reason this film got such a bad reputation is because we were all still so enamored with M. Night Shymalan’s famous twists and when it came,┬ásome found it disappointing, a cheat even. If all you’re concerned about is solving the mystery, you might miss the significance of the deeper themes. Not seeing the forest for the trees, as it were.

Admittedly, the movie is less scarier upon multiple viewings- though I would argue that the atmosphere is still effectively creepy, and perhaps more so with the disturbing context, underlying every child’s scream and creep and chill, that this is a massive and calculated deception by the adults who care about them, designed to keep them in this isolated secure little community.

Edward Walker’s proposal was simple enough, and fabricating some mysterious and terrifying boogeymen was actually logical and keeping with the core principles of what he and The Elders were trying to accomplish. The isolation of the “wilderness preserve”, the walls, the guards who may or may not know what’s going on, and the bribes to keep airplanes from flying over will keep the world and all its violence and corruption out. Those We Don’t Speak Of will keep the innocence in.

It’s an interesting plan, certainly ambitious, well-intentioned if arguably immoral (what right, after all, do these Elders have to raise their children in ignorance, to scare them into submission and use fear to lock them out of the rest of the world?) Yet there is an inherent flaw, tragic and unacknowledged. Original Sin, Human Nature, or to use prosaic language evoking the Elders’ own symbolism, you can take the people out of The City, but you can’t take The City out the people. Even if those people are your own children who have never left The Village.

What, after all, is the difference between a village and a city? There’s nothing supernatural. It’s just size. A city is simply a mass of men living their lives with the conveniences of modern technology. It is a community, simply on a larger scale. Most people are decent, try to treat others how they’d like to be treated- or so they say- and generally do not commit the acts of depravity, cruelty, and violence that sent the future villagers running for the promise of an Earthly paradise. Such crimes do occur in cities, however, and with alarming frequency. Yet what Walker failed to understand in his doomed Utopian idealism, was that it was not modernity that causes violence in The Towns he will soon warn against, but mankind itself. The Village had staved off the intrusion of such primeval manifestations for a long time, but in this life and this world, sin and sorrow are unfortunate inevitabilities, something proven by the film’s most interesting character.

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Noah Percy at first appears to be somewhat of a holy fool. When the bells ring of the monsters’ approach, all either quake in fear or bow their heads in acknowledgment of the solemnity and gravitas, even Lucius Hunt, who will prove brave enough to walk into the woods without fear. Noah, however, is the only one to laugh, to clap his hands as if it is all a child’s game.

(Which it is.)

So little regard does Noah have for the boundaries and laws of Covington that he is willing to cross the barrier into the woods and pick berries of the forbidden color. Lucius will come to believe that the creatures always spared Noah because of his innocence. In fact, not only are there no creatures, but Noah himself is not a complete innocent. Indeed, it is Noah who will first bring evil into the village.

Perhaps there is a deliberate irony to the character’s Biblical namesake. There are certain parallels, we can see, between the God of Genesis’s frustration with the corrupt world and Edward Walker’s. In both cases, the solution is to cast off the rest of the world, gather a small group of decent people and form a new community in total isolation- either because that wicked world has been flooded over or you’re sealed off from it. Yet whereas the original Noah took his good family away from the evil of the world, Noah Percy brings evil into the ark.

Hark back to The Bible once again, and recall the cause of the first murder. It was jealousy.

Noah’s fondness for Ivy is obvious. But she does not love him in that way.
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Just as Cain was jealous that Abel received God’s affection, Noah is jealous that Ivy chooses Lucius. Noah is simple, but he is capable of the most extreme manifestation of every emotion. It is not some calculated cold-blooded scheme that drives the knife into Lucius, rather the hot-blooded wrath of a jealous fool who does not understand the consequences of his action and instantly dissembles.

Yet that’s enough. The poison’s in the wound. Edward observes with horror and resignation in equal measure, that this was a crime, and it happened in a place far away from the corruption of the towns, implemented by a young man who had never seen such evil, and had only always been taught the good and virtuous path. The experiment, it seems, has failed.

Not all is lost, however. In their naive idealism, their well-meaning arrogance, The Elders thought they could make a place that shut the world out. What they did not realize, is that the world is within the hearts of every man, every woman, every child. That includes the capacity for good and for evil, and the ability to know the difference. The beasts you make up to keep the children in line may eventually be dwarfed by the beasts they arise in the children themselves when they grow up into an environment unprepared for their natural proclivities towards violence and vice. There’s something else though. Noah stabbed Lucius out of hate, a stupid, evil act born from his jealous, simple affection for the woman they both loved. But what of Lucius, and what of Ivy? What inspired Lucius to dare to go into the forbidden woods to test the possibilities and then to confess his transgression to The Elders, humbling himself when he is ashamed he may have put Covington in danger?

Edward tells Lucius he is fearless in a way that he will never know.

And that’s true. And such courage comes from a love, for his community, and for Edward’s daughter Ivy.

It is love that makes the blind girl wait with the door open when the monsters approach, unwilling to shut in until the man she loves is safe. It is love that sends her out into the unknown world monsters or not, to find what she needs to heal him.

You get both everywhere, village or town, metropolis or anachronistic community. Such is the human condition, to face evil, combat it with love, to rise again. What God has given us is the capacity to do this, the strength, the courage, if we so choose.
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And it’s the only thing that lets the village survive.

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