A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)

Alongside a bigger project about angels, I’ve been working on an article about angels and film, and by ‘working on’ I mean I’ve been watching a lot of films with angels in, taking the Wikipedia page on “Films about angels” as my guide. The page title is a bit misleading, actually; it’s more properly a list of films with angels in, often in fairly marginal roles. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, for example, features angels only very briefly, in the form of pastel-clad flight attendants checking people’s tickets as they arrive in heaven (air travel being a frequent association with angels going at least as far back as  1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan, in which grey-suited angels check people onto planes presumably transporting people to heaven). Anyway, point is I’ve watched a lot of angel films at this point, and thought it might be worth trying to jot down some thoughts about them here as I go, so consider this your welcome to a new occasional blog series from me about films with angels in.

Spoilers ahead

Francis Lawrence’s 2005 film Constantine features Keanu Reaves as John Constantine, hellblazer – essentially a kind of private detective but for exorcising demons rather than catching criminals. Constantine was born with the ability to see demons, which has made it particularly difficult for him to be saved because where other people have faith that God exists, he knows that God exists, which according to the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) does not count for the purposes of salvation. Worse still, he’s damned to hell because being able to see, as a child, that the world was full of horrific demons, drove him to attempt suicide – a mortal sin. In the film, the world exists in a tenuous balance between the forces of good and the forces of evil: angelic and demonic ‘half breeds’ leave heaven or hell to migrate to earth, where they tempt people either to good or to evil deeds. Constantine’s job is to find out where these half-angelic or half-demonic beings exceed their proper bounds and to ‘deport’ them back to where they came from. The action unfolds in the wake of the rediscovery of the ‘The Spear of Destiny’, wrapped in a Nazi flag. The spear is the spear which pierced Jesus’ side on the cross and it turns out that if the spear is united with the power of a psychic, it will enable Lucifer’s son, Mammon, to fully ‘cross over’ from hell to earth. As we discover during the film’s denouement, this plan was in fact instigated not by Lucifer but by Gabriel, a kind of celestial accelerationist who, jealous of the unfair favour shown by God to humans, who only need to repent in order to be saved, wants to intensify the contradictions of human life so as to weed out those humans who don’t want to be saved.

The film takes its genre conventions from noir, which takes for granted that criminality is an ordinary and inescapable part of the balance of society. The role of the noir detective is to solve individual crimes without any sense that this individual problem solving will result in a world without crime. The dangers posed by state and government are as real for the noir detective as the risks of the criminal underworld. As Keanu pairs up with a cop, Angela (Rachel Weisz), she learns that if she wants to solve the mystery of her twin sister’s death, she must accept the existence of the demonic underworld, which is to say that she has to learn to make her way not only by the rational mandates of state power but also by the irrational, extra-legal principles by which the spiritual underworld functions. The power of God works hand in hand with the power of Satan; and the angelic forces of good are as brutal and horrifying as anything that hell has to unleash. It isn’t the devil who decides that someone driven to suicide by the horrors of reality will spend all eternity being repeatedly ripped from limb to limb, and as Gabriel tells Constantine that – despite a life devoted to maintaining the celestial balance – this one moment of weakness has condemned him eternal torment, she shows no sign of pity. Here angels are agents of the state, a state whose zeal for justice threatens to unsettle the precarious balance in which ordinary humans struggle to survive, as much endangered by the forces of good as by the forces of evil. As calm bureaucrat insisting on the letter of the law in the first part of the film, Gabriel appears in suit, tie and dark wings; when she is revealed to be a puritanical fanatic she appears in more traditional angelic white; perhaps an indication that, for Constantine and his like, technocratic government is preferable to revolutionary reform. It’s a vision in which the state and policing alike generate and sustain crime and criminality; less an abolitionist vision than a grim recognition that the best we can do is learn to skilfully navigate between the twin horrors of the legal and the criminal. It’s also clearly a racialised vision, though I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that both angelic and demonic forces are understood in terms of miscegenation, migration and deportation: if anyone has any thoughts or reading suggestions that would help me think that through, please feel free to help me out in the comments.