Post Modern Pragmatism: O’ Brother Where Art Thou and The Dark Knight

O’ Brother Where Art Thou and The Dark Knight are two relatively contemporary movies that are quite different in overall cinematic approach; yet, both are products of their post-modern age, and both rework older stories to present a modern message. O’ Brother is a comedy that humorously reworks Homer’s Odyssey. The light-hearted mockery of the film, along with the often ignorant optimism causes the O’ Brother to verge on a sort of film blanc style. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, is more a noir style tragedy that brings Batman into a modern, realistic world, a world in which a darker hero seems to best suit the dark world surrounding him.

In O’ Brother, the viewer is privy to a prison escape by three inmates who are seeking a buried treasure and the perilous, quite farcical journey that comes with it. In The Dark Knight, the viewer watches as Batman takes on his archenemy, The Joker, in a tale that pushes Batman (and almost every other hero of the story) to trample on the moral line of truth that should undergird a just system. The stories seem so different, but in the closing scenes, the viewer is presented with what makes the films alike. Both end with a cliffhanger that is founded on moral ambiguity—the moral ambiguity of the ‘hero’ for that matter.

As O’ Brother comes to its close, the viewer sees the protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill finally trying to do right by his wife. He has gone to his old home to retrieve his ex-wife’s wedding ring so that she will remarry him. But he is caught by policemen who are dead-set to hang him. As Ulysses makes a salvific plea with God, the river is released on top of the whole scene, saving Ulysses—a sort of baptism. But as is the case with this hero throughout the movie, once he is out of deep water (kind of), he recants his redemptive pleas. Then in conversation with his ex-wife, Ulysses discovers he has retrieved the wrong ring. If he wants to continue on the right path, he will have to find it at the bottom of the lake. Of course, he tries to worm his way out it. He is not really worried about doing right, only getting what he wants; the rest can be justifiably explained away.

In the closing of The Dark Knight, the viewer watches as the White Knight (Dent), who has just finished a vengeful killing spree, holds a child hostage. To rescue the kid, Batman must kill Dent, though he just saved The Joker. Standing over Dent’s body, Batman tells Gordon that he will take the blame for Dent’s homicidal vengeance, thus founding justice on the back of a lie, in a murderer’s honor. Nevertheless, it is justifiable because beating The Joker is more important than truth. The idea that truth is secondary as long as the end is ‘good’ is a pragmatic twist on scriptures. This twist is highlighted in Batman’s “internal conflicts between the good he aspires to restore and the means he deploys.”[1] 

It is the duty of Christian apologist to help society understand that though this type of pragmatism seems justifiable, and we all fall to it at times, truth is the only real, firm source of good—the two cannot be separated. Such films call us to imagine a world in which God is not the source of truth and definer of good; rather, either our needs (O’ Brother) or our society’s needs (The Dark Knight) are the justifier of truth via what we or our society deem as good—in this case, good always relies on results, not truth. But, even truth which we do not like cannot be sacrificed for self or mob-perceived good. This will only lead to delusion and destruction—The Dark Knight Rises sets a good example of this.

[1] Thomas S. Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 183.

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