Little Spiritual or Cinematic Value Offered in "Constantine"
- 2005 18 Feb
Release Date: February 18, 2005
Rating: R (for violence and demonic images)
Run Time: 121 min.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Actors: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vance, Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale
There’s been a lot of talk about this film representing good and evil. And maybe I’m missing something, but I just didn’t see it. What I did see was a bizarre portrayal of demonic and the occult, with virtually no representation of God or anything good.
In a remote Mexican desert, a peasant discovers a spear wrapped in a Nazi flag. Called the Spear of Destiny, it is the same weapon that was used by the Roman Centurion to test whether Christ was dead, after he had been nailed to the cross. According to legend, those who possess the spear have supernatural abilities, which explains how the peasant not only survives a violent death but manages to walk to Los Angeles (borders not included).
In an L.A. barrio, a young woman is writhing in angst, screaming obscenities. Her priest (Pruitt Taylor Vance) calls in Constantine (Keanu Reeves), who for some reason has the supernatural ability to recognize “half-breeds” – beings created when demons mated with humans – and send demons back to Hell. This drove Constantine insane as a teen and he eventually took his own life. But he was sent back, and he hopes that somehow, his exorcisms will win God’s favor. Constantine smokes like a fiend and has terminal lung cancer, but knows he’s going to Hell because of his suicide. The androgynous, mysterious Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) tells him that instead, he needs to have faith and repent, but Constantine shrugs off that idea.
He delivers the Latina of her demon, but is particularly disturbed by its violent force. After being attacked by another demon on the street, Constantine starts to suspects that something is off with “the balance,” that wager between God and Satan which means that demons and angels must have no direct contact with humans – only influence.
When a police detective (Rachel Weisz) insists that Constantine help her prove her sister’s death was not a suicide but a murder – so that she can have a proper Christian burial – Constantine resists, but soon comes to her aide. This involves visiting Hell, which one can only do by dying a self-inflicted death. So Constantine straps himself to an electric chair and “dies,” then visits Hell. He also discovers a plot about the birth of Satan’s son, which is revealed in an extended version of the book of Corinthians, contained in the “Satanic Bible.” Supposedly, Satan needs a “medium” to bear his son, and the good detective has been chosen.
The most overwhelming problem with this film is its theology, which undergirds the storyline at every point. For some, this may not be so obvious, but even the most nominal churchgoer will notice glaring contradictions. I happen to have a degree in the subject, so it hammered at me like a contractor behind schedule. There are truths in “Constantine,” to be sure – but they are few and far between. The film accurately presents the notion that good and evil are at work in the world, and that angels and demons try to influence us so that God or Satan can win our souls for the hereafter. A place called Hell – which is fairly well represented in this version – also does indeed exist. Presented as a barren, fire-consumed wasteland, this portrayal will have even the staunchest of atheists a little concerned.
The rest of “Constantine,” however, is just plain deluded. For starters, there is no spiritual law that angels and demons cannot cross over to the physical world. This can and does happen – and the film even contradicts itself on this very point, by showing a demonic possession. Humans, however, cannot cross back and forth to Heaven or Hell. This point is illustrated in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16. The rich man, who is suffering in Hell, asks for Lazarus, a poor beggar who is now in Heaven, to give him a drop of water. Abraham says to the rich man, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” In other words, once you’re dead, you’re dead – no changing seats.
Another major problem is the film’s teaching that those who commit suicide are relegated to Hell. This is not a side note in “Constantine,” but a major premise, because this is the only way that characters can go back and forth between the natural and the spiritual realms. That they do so by drowning in a bathtub might even be construed as an “anti” baptism. You go under, you die, you go to Hell – instead of being reborn. However, the teaching about suicide as the unforgivable sin is not Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox teaching. It is not Biblical at all, although many believe that it is (and as such, it has perhaps saved many from attempting it, although definitely for the wrong reason).
The film also offers the message that truth can only be discerned from Satan, who is the only one to appear to keep his word. Constantine must find the Satanic Bible, which has additional chapters of Corinthians (a blasphemy in itself). This “teaching” reveals what is about to happen with the birth of Satan’s son, a sort of Anti-Christ that must be born through the womb of a medium – a twisted version of the birth narrative. Lucifer also spouts off at the end of the film, as if he has something to teach us, determines when Constantine will die (so he, not God, has the power of life and death) and then performs a healing. All this is sheer blasphemy of the highest level.
Gabriel, supposed to be one of God’s highest and most-honored messengers, is, in this film, a physically, morally and spiritually ambiguous character who dispenses convoluted messages about salvation. On the one hand, this androgynous, Jean-Paul Gaultier-wearing creep tells Constantine that he cannot win his way into Heaven and must repent. On the other hand, he/she insists that the way to earn God’s favor is to confront evil. We do not curry God’s favor by confronting evil, however. We receive God’s grace by bowing before Him in humility, and through the Cross, find the courage to confront evil. Gabriel is also “demoted” to human status, which is not only theologically impossible and illogical (because angels and humans are separate, distinct entities), but also implies that being human is some kind of punishment from God.
During his exorcisms, Constantine never mentions the name of Jesus – which is the only power we have over the Enemy. In fact, Jesus is never mentioned at all in the film. He is only referred to in two scenes, when “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is recited – but in Latin. So the film completely bypasses the power of Jesus Christ, who is the one means that Constantine might have of actually doing real good. The film also makes a near denial of the crucifixion by stating that Jesus died from the soldier’s spear – not his wounds on the cross. This denies the apostle John’s teaching that the separation of blood and serum, which flowed out of Jesus after he was lanced, proved that he was already dead.
Bad theology is not the only problem hindering “Constantine,” whose plot meanders more than the River Styx. Perhaps “Hellblazer” devotees will have little trouble understanding all the contortions, but everyone else will be left shaking their heads in confusion. The screen adaptation, which came from a DC Comics/Vertigo series called “Hellblazer,” was written by a pair whose main credits involve a Steven Seagal movie and one starring Hulk Hogan, so I suppose it’s not surprising. The film is also directed by someone with no experience in feature films (this is his first). This probably explains why you feel like you’re in a music video (his background) – albeit one with lots of CGI.
Reeves plays the same role he usually plays in films – the stoic hero who talks in monotones and says “Whoa!” Weisz does a good job with her role, along with Shia LaBeouf, who plays Constantine’s cab-driving sidekick. Taylor Vance gives us yet another sick, stereotypical priest. He’s an alcoholic who can’t resist the bottle, and he eventually goes insane and kills himself. Enough already with the evil priests, please.
Gavin Rossdale gives an excellent performance as Balthazar, Satan’s little helper. Equally ignoble is Midnight (Djimon Hounsou), the owner of a bar who helps Constantine travel back and forth with an electric chair, in between serving drinks to half-breeds on his “neutral” territory. As Satan, Peter Stormare gives a rather clichéd performance with little insight into who this character might actually be.
Overall, despite a massive marketing campaign to the Christian media (which, for the life of me, I cannot understand), “Constantine” offers no spiritual or moral value. Unfortunately, it has little cinematic value, either. It’s convoluted, dark and disingenuous. It’s also extremely violent – gratuitously so. Moreover, by attempting to make evil so fascinating, it may tempt many to dabble in the occult.
Balance? Not in this film. Blaze your way out of this one.
AUDIENCE: Adults only
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Characters drink and smoke throughout the film.
- Language/Profanity: Approximately two dozen obscenities and profanities, including one f- word.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Man hesitates when a woman offers to take off her clothes for a “trip” to Hell; woman’s cleavage & nipples can be seen through bra.
- Violence: Pedestrian is killed in violent, head-on collision; woman confesses to what appears to be serial murder (to which priest says, “God has a plan” and reassures her); woman jumps to her death from a tall building; man splits blood; man stabs himself repeatedly in the hand with an ice pick, then dies; man commits murder offscreen; numerous hand-to-hand “combat” scenes with demons; people are killed in various ways by demons; characters commit suicide in several scenes (but come back to life); man drowns a woman; girl crashes violently through window, being pulled by demonic forces – and more.