Have you ever had a thought so loud it seemed impossible no one else could hear it?
I’ve often felt like the intangible thoughts and feelings rattling inside me had to be strong enough that other people could observe them. No one had ever said anything to suggest this… but then again, maybe everyone was just too polite to mention their awareness of my internal monologue. This feeling became a paranoia that, ironically, a friend of mine noticed after class one day. She asked me why I had been repeatedly covering my mouth with my hand during the lecture, and I sheepishly explained that I was making sure I wasn’t unconsciously speaking my thoughts out loud. When a rude or otherwise embarrassing thought surfaced, I quickly bit my tongue or chewed the end of a pen to make sure to muffle anything I might accidentally say.
This comical (and, perhaps, clinical) concern more or less faded to the back of my mind, but it was yanked abruptly to the forefront again by the movie Chaos Walking.
The Story (Spoiler-Free)
Chaos Walking is based on the similarly titled trilogy of books by Patrick Ness. (In violation of my normal movie-watching principles, I did not read the book before seeing the film. Consider this my confession and commitment to repentance.) The movie takes place in a human settlement on an alien planet called New World “where there are no women, and all living creatures can hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds called Noise.” Todd Hewitt (played by Tom Holland) is the youngest citizen of Prentisstown, the last boy born before every woman was killed. He struggles to “control his Noise” from the start, which, unsurprisingly, gets him into trouble quite often. For example, his aggravation with Mayor Prentiss’ son is broadcast by his Noise; however, Todd also uses Noise to his advantage, thinking up the image of a snake to scare the young Prentiss’ horse. (The way that each individual’s Noise is expressed on the screen is fascinating to watch. The Noise appears as glittering, fuzzy fog containing flashes of images and producing spoken words. The movie managed to portray the overwhelming constancy of the Noise within the story without actually overwhelming the audience.)
The inciting incident occurs when a spaceship from Earth arrives at New World and sends a scouting crew down to the surface. After a crash-landing, Viola (Daisy Ridley) is the sole survivor. She is not affected by the Noise as the men are; her thoughts remain unknown to those around her. At Prentisstown, she overhears the men’s plans to take control of the spaceship that sent her when it lands on the planet. (How they planned to commandeer a spaceship holding 4,000 people with only a gaggle of grumpy, Noisy men on horseback and the element of surprise, I am still not sure.) Regardless, Viola escapes Prentisstown with the task of warning her ship. Todd is quick to join her with his trusty canine companion Manchee, only after being warned by his adoptive father not to tell any other colonies where he is from.
There are a few scenes later in the movie that get pretty dark, most of which involve a character referred to as “the Preacher” whose Noise manifests as blazing fire and out-of-context Scripture passages about judgment. I get the sense that his character and the theme of religious manipulation are of greater significance in the original books, but the movie (keeping a PG-13 rating) toned it down somewhat. Frankly, considering the premise and gender dynamics of the movie, I was grateful and somewhat surprised that Chaos Walking avoided becoming a much more intense film. Even the implicit homosexual relationship between Todd’s adoptive fathers called very little attention to itself. Although there was definitely a wealth of material to work with, this movie seemed driven by its underlying message more than it was motivated to tie up loose threads of the plot. I was left with several questions about the inhabitants of New World when the credits rolled, but the focus of the movie – Todd’s control of his Noise and his relationship with Viola – was clearly resolved.
Control Your Noise
“The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.”
The mantra Todd learns in Prentisstown, which he repeats to himself and has repeated to him by others throughout the movie, is simple: “Control your noise.” Clearly, this is the way to avoid chaos. In a powder keg town of easily angered men, unfiltered Noise is a spark.
Mayor Prentiss is a prime example of Noise-control. His Noise is rarely visible, unless he is using it to create illusions or intoning a mental chant of “I am the circle and the circle is me” over his followers (another detail that goes unexplained in the movie adaptation). Todd looks up to the mayor, admiring his control and seeking to imitate it. Before long, though, it becomes clear than when some men say “control your Noise,” they really just mean “hide it.” And the men who hide themselves in darkness commit the most unthinkable acts in the end. Their isolation leads them to inhumanity.
Genuine control of one’s mind is a valuable discipline and worthwhile pursuit, as Todd learns. Muffling his Noise, which he does by mentally reciting his own name, or clearing thoughts from his mind completely are abilities which serve him well at different points on his journey. (If the Preacher had been worthy of his nickname, he could have given an outstanding sermon on 2 Corinthians 10:5. Take every Noise captive!) But mental discipline does not come at the expense of vulnerability and emotion.
Good, Beautiful, and True
Upon meeting Viola, Todd is perplexed by her lack of Noise. His inability to know what she’s thinking puts him on edge. “You might not like my dog,” he says to her. (She reassures him that this is not the case.) Viola, on the other hand, is similarly confused at being able to hear Todd’s internal processes in addition to what he offers externally. Although this does lead to a few awkward situations (she is the first girl he’s ever seen, after all), it is more a benefit to their relationship than a detriment.
As the duo journeys along, Viola walks behind Todd through the dissipating cloud of his Noise. For every abrasive, tough-guy comment he makes, she also glimpses the weight he is carrying and his kind-heartedness underneath. That kind of insight into a person’s words and actions helps empathy come much more easily.
Self-control – or maybe Noise-control, in this case – is a fruit of the Spirit! Hiding is not the same as being disciplined; hiding removes us from relationships that nurture other fruits like love, kindness, and goodness. Viola’s patience with Todd begins to break through his macho façade, and in his most vulnerable moments, he begins to understand the truth that “being a man” does not preclude experiences such as embracing grief. Through their relationship, he learns to control his thoughts and develop a filter of wisdom, but he also learns not to hide himself away – he learns to be vulnerable.
By interacting vulnerably (i.e. honestly) in the context of healthy relationships, our rough edges are smoothed out, and we are guarded against the distorting power of isolation. This does not mean indiscriminate vulnerability, however. As Brené Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly, “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.” In other words, vulnerability must still be “controlled” within wise boundaries – just never completely hidden.
During my season of paranoia concerning my own Noise, I developed a habitual mantra similar to Todd’s. Instead of biting my tongue or repeating my own name, I focused on reciting Romans 12:2:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
I began to trust that part of that good, pleasing, and perfect will was that, as Romans 12 goes on to say, we function in the body of Christ as members belonging to each other. As we let our true selves be known within the boundaries of Christ-centered community, and when we are received with love by those few we can truly call friends, the Spirit who sanctifies does some of His best work.