Looking back at the underestimated 2005 occult noir
An Angel City taxi cab delivers John Constantine to his afternoon exorcism. As Constantine gets to work, fighting to free a girl from the demon inside her, he realizes this isn’t your average ritual — something’s wrong, off-balance. Something’s coming. And Constantine isn’t just the first to notice, he’s the only guy who can fix it.
John Constantine stands at the center of a war waged between Heaven and Hell. Despite these cosmic circumstances, he’s just a guy trying to figure it all out. Constantine struggles with his mortality, with morality, with loss and loneliness, with a God he feels has forsaken him and an unfair universe. The characters who populate it are like him: desperate, disillusioned, backed into dark corners. 2005’s Constantine is hard-boiled horror, a supernatural noir where Keanu Reeves plays an occult Philip Marlowe, a man haunted by ghosts both figurative and real.
For some fans, the Vertigo/DC Comics character underwent a sacrilegious transformation: The film took him from London to Los Angeles, switched his blonde look to brunette, and replaced his trademark olive trench with a black coat. Though it’s not the most literal Hellblazer adaptation, Constantine is its own special thing, a film misunderstood at the time of its release. Over the years, though, it’s steadily gained the love and appreciation it always deserved.
Constantine languished in development hell at Warner Bros in the late ’90s. But the project had staying power, and after years of struggling and evolving, Keanu Reeves signed on to star in the film for music video director Francis Lawrence, who would make his feature debut. With Constantine, Lawrence and his collaborators constructed a rich, textured world, one whose inner workings are intimately familiar to our protagonist, though he doesn’t always feel like explaining them. (“Cats are good. Half in half out, anyway.”) Here, the supernatural is quotidian — performing an exorcism is “like changing your oil,” Reeves told the Associated Press at the time of release.
Constantine is a reluctant hero, a con man, a wise ass. In an interview with Sunday Express, Reeves called him a “warrior in this world of shit.” He is Heaven and Hell’s go-between, single-handedly keeping the universe from unraveling. Screenwriter Kevin Brodbin told Cinefantastique that he pitched John Constantine “like a rock ’n’ roll star of the occult,” a man who treats exorcisms like an extreme sport. “He does it for kicks, to bedevil the devil,” Brodbin explained. In his youth, Constantine was driven mad by his ability to see half-demons and half-angels and tried to kill himself, a mortal sin that damned him. He died for a few moments, and in that time, he was sent to Hell for what felt like a lifetime. And now he doesn’t want to go back. As he racks up exorcisms, he hopes that someday he might meet some arbitrary quota that will satisfy God. But true atonement isn’t his purpose as much as saving his own hide from damnation.
Constantine plays with shades of noir, from the doomed fatalism of the paranoid noir to the hardboiled noir of gumshoes like Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Philip Marlowe. The detective story is a riff on the quest of the knight errant, and though Constantine would never admit it, he’s essentially a knight in tarnished armor. In his letters, Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective is “the avenging justice, the bringer of order out of chaos,” a perfect description of John Constantine, who brings order out of the ultimate chaos: the threat of the apocalypse.
After his long stint in Hell, Constantine’s cynicism and world-weariness are hard-earned. Like his private-eye predecessors, he’s a lone wolf. In an exchange cut from the film, Constantine and Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou) watch people on the street and Constantine remarks, “Never ceases to amaze me.” Midnite asks, “What?” and Constantine clarifies: “Normal life.” His secret knowledge only deepens his loneliness. He’s always on the outside looking in, wondering just how blissful ignorance would be.
Noir’s fatalism is baked into Constantine. In the film’s commentary, producer Akiva Goldsman explains the basics: “God and the devil, as a result of this wager for the souls of all mankind, have a hands-off policy when it comes to the earth. They send these half-demons and half-angels to influence us, to see which way the decks can be stacked and which way the game will go.” Humankind is at the mercy of God’s and the devil’s whims, pawns in their battle. Like Constantine’s friend and holy-relics supplier Beeman (Max Baker) says, “We are finger puppets to them.” Even advertisements seem to mock the natives and confirm their abandonment: a lottery promotion reads “Play to win” in the liquor store where Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Father Hennessy drinks himself to death, a Chevy billboard tells Constantine after his cancer diagnosis “Your Time is Running Out … To Buy a New Chevy,” another billboard behind the man carrying the Spear of Destiny asks “Got faith?” When Gavin Rossdale’s half-demon Balthazar kills Beeman and Hennessy with something each man loves (bugs and booze, respectively), their deaths feel like cosmic jokes.
Constantine hates the impossible rules and the endless regulations that trap him and humankind. The laws of God and the devil are like ours, as it turns out: they don’t actually determine what’s good or bad, just what you can get away with. The world behind the world is as corrupt as this one, if not more so, because we expect God to be better than us. Instead, he’s just as petty and fallible as his creation. God and the devil have lost the plot and forgotten humankind over their little bet, unleashing a war in which Constantine is both a veteran and a casualty.
In Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller writes that, in the genre, “prayers go unheard in these parts,” an apt description of Constantine’s universe. It makes Los Angeles the perfect setting for his story: sprawling, anonymous, as disconnected as Constantine. A person could live in L.A. their whole life and still only know a fraction of it. A world behind the world could conceivably exist. It’s not unthinkable that thousands of winged demons could have been incinerated only moments before you reached Broadway and 8th, or that you can find the 101 freeway in Hell.
Constantine moves through his city without judgment from its denizens. What he hates is the powerful, both good and evil. He befriends witch doctors and priests, half-demons and half-angels. Though like Constantine, his friends are human and vulnerable to the powers-that-be. And he keeps losing them: the psychic priest Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his “apprentice” Chas (Shia LaBeouf), and his own occult Q, Beeman (Max Baker).
Hennessy might just be his closest friend, one of the few characters who truly understands what it’s like to be Constantine. Both men are burdened with a gift that feels more like a curse. Hennessy can hear the dead, and he silences the voices in his head with booze. When Constantine takes away Hennessy’s amulet of protection and asks him to listen to the ether for information, he unknowingly consigns him to a terrible death. The Latin phrase engraved on the side of Constantine’s lighter is “Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus,” meaning “Let justice be done, though the world perish,” and it’s the detective’s credo — to get justice at any cost. His friends pay the price. Screenwriter Frank Capello told Cinefantastique upon release that Constantine’s “only allegiance is to himself. Screw anybody else. He has friends he will sacrifice to complete a job.”
Papa Midnite is one of Constantine’s few friends who survives their friendship. He’s wise to Constantine’s cons, initially resisting his requests for help. It’s not even really evident that they are friends at first. But when Midnite finally allows Constantine to “surf” in the electric chair from Sing Sing to find the Spear of Destiny, their connection becomes clear. Midnite used to do what Constantine does. They have a shorthand, a history. While Constantine is still on the frontlines, Midnite is out of the game, a former witch doctor-turned-club owner. According to Francis Lawrence on the film’s commentary, Midnite’s club is like Rick’s cafe in Casablanca, a place where “both half-breed demons and half-breed angels could come and let their hair down or their tails out or what have you.” But when evil tips the balance, Midnite sets aside his oath of neutrality and helps his old pal. Before Constantine and Chas leave the club to take on Mammon, Midnite prays over them. Though Constantine acts dismissive, Midnite’s blessing calls up something Beeman told Constantine before he died: “I know you’ve never had much faith, you’ve never had much reason to, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have faith in you.”
Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) is the only newcomer to Constantine’s inner circle. They’re brought together by death: Constantine’s terminal diagnosis and the death of Angela’s twin sister Isabel by suicide. Just as Angela helps facilitate Constantine’s arc from selfish to selfless, Constantine is the catalyst for Angela’s evolution. Lawrence choreographed it so that their movement in the frame — Angela from right to left, Constantine from left to right — creates the sense they’re “always heading toward one another,” on a collision course, fated to meet. Regular kismet.
Angela is complicated. Introduced to us in a confessional after having shot yet another man, she’s a Catholic who kills people for a living. Like Constantine, she lives with guilt. For her, it’s because she betrayed and abandoned her twin, denied their shared gift, and had her institutionalized. For years, Angela has suppressed her psychic powers. It’s Constantine who guides her self-discovery. Frank Capello says, “John is John, but this girl doesn’t even know who she is, and he’s going to open her eyes.” And the trust goes both ways: with Angela, Constantine reluctantly allows another person into his life. Though they only flirt with romance, they do have a kind of sex scene when Constantine drowns Angela in the bathtub until she glimpses hell for the first time. It’s a ritual that requires complete trust, vulnerability, and faith.
Angela isn’t really a damsel in distress or a femme fatale — she’s a detective herself, and Constantine’s equal. Rather than becoming the instrument of his destruction, she supplies the means for his salvation. If anything, Constantine is our homme fatale, leading others — and himself — to their doom. Just before Angela comes knocking on his door, Constantine sits at his kitchen table and finishes his drink, then uses the glass to trap a hapless spider, filling it up with cigarette smoke as the creature tries in vain to escape. “Welcome to my life,” he says. It’s an image that not only expresses how Constantine feels, it distills noir and its fatalism. Meaningfully, it’s Angela who releases the spider before she leaves, anticipating the way she helps free Constantine from cancer and from damnation.
Everything comes to a head when Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel captures Angela, dropping her in the hydrotherapy pool where her sister died, an echo of her sister’s fall. Gabriel now has all the ingredients for armageddon: the Spear of Destiny, the son of Satan, and a powerful psychic. While old-school private eyes cut through the shadows with legwork and clues, Constantine can do it with a visit to hell and a spell, one that reveals Gabriel as the architect of the approaching apocalypse.
Gabriel delivers Constantine’s noir double-cross, though in her mind, she’s not the villain. Her goal is to unite humanity, and maximize the number of souls she can get into heaven. With her self-righteousness and absolutism, Francis Lawrence says her character is a commentary on the Christian right’s hypocrisy. In an interview with the New York Times, Tilda Swinton acknowledged that her take on the angel was a departure from the Bible, “but it is absolutely not a departure from real life as we are living it today, in the grip of people who are dressing themselves up as God’s right hand and taking us into war.” For Swinton, the challenge was to make sure that Gabriel remains well-intentioned, that the audience sees “how [Gabriel] engineers this extraordinarily violent apocalypse out of love.”
Despite Constantine’s plea for “a little attention,” God doesn’t answer him. But he knows someone who will. When Angela’s death, Mammon’s birth, and the end of everything seem imminent, Constantine slits his wrists, knowing he’s the one soul on earth that the devil would personally come to collect. Sure enough, Lucifer accepts the invitation, entering the frame with feet dripping tar-black sludge, white suit pristine. Francis Lawrence described his take on Satan as “sort of like Fagin from Oliver Twist” and “so powerful he doesn’t have to get angry.” Peter Stormare takes it there; his Lucifer is unsettling, unruffled, and even funny. Stormare’s deeply creepy as he offers Constantine a “whole theme park of red delights.” With his performance, Stormare gives us one of the all-time great cinematic portrayals of the devil.
Akiva Goldsman calls this final showdown “a tug of war between the devil and God.” Unlike many modern adaptations of comic books, the climax isn’t a city-leveling spree of violence; instead, it’s a quiet conversation. A battle of wits. A negotiation for one man’s soul. And it ends with a “fuck you” to Lucifer, to fate, to death. In the documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, James Ellroy explained what the genre is to him: “It’s a righteous, generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme and that theme is … you’re fucked.” Exactly what Gabriel once told Constantine. But in his moment of triumph, Constantine subverts this: it’s not the detective who’s fucked but the devil himself.
Constantine beats the devil at his own game without any tricks. This is not another con. Though it does happen to solve most of his problems: God finally opens a portal into Heaven for him, and Lucifer, in his annoyance, plucks the steaming black cancer out of his lungs to prevent him from doing so. It’s a sequence that shows off the abilities of Lawrence, Reeves, Stormare, and DP Philippe Rousselot to make a chat between two characters in a filthy room spellbinding. (It also gives us one of the coolest cinematic moments of all time: Constantine putting his cigarette out in his own blood.)
But Constantine’s sacrifice is sincere, Christlike, an act of true selflessness to save Isabel’s soul, not his own. He doesn’t want to care, but he does. Underneath the veneer of cynicism, Constantine loves humankind more than the guys in charge.
Constantine defies the fatalism of his noir-steeped universe. He was not forsaken, but rather, someone for whom God had a purpose, the most important plan of all. Constantine is a film about forgiveness, about second chances, about the bonds forged between the broken, the traumatized, the alienated. In Constantine’s climactic sequence, both Angela and Constantine revisit and confront their trauma: Angela in the hydrotherapy room where her sister died, Constantine repeating his own suicide in a psychiatric ward. Constantine is about the ways grief and trauma and pain can knock you into another universe only understood by those who’ve shared the same feelings, the same experiences. It’s about how the truth of existence is a horror best weathered with friends. It’s about the lost and the powerless realizing that their lives do in fact have meaning, and our faith in each other is what delivers us.
Constantine survives, no longer damned or dying of cancer. He replaces cigarettes with nicotine gum. Keanu Reeves reportedly wrote Constantine’s last line, one that sums up his journey tidily: “I guess there’s a plan for all of us. I had to die — twice — just to figure that out. Like the book says, He works His work in mysterious ways. Some people like it, some people don’t.”
He’s still ambivalent, still Constantine, but maybe he’s cast aside a little bit of his nihilism, gained some peace, understood his own significance. In the end, he finds a place among the people he’s fought so long to protect. John Constantine saves the world, and he saves himself.
Constantine is currently streaming on HBO Max.