Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.
Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.
I’m probably about to make a lot of Hellblazer fans really angry (which might be half the fun), but I love Francis Lawrence’s Constantine. This also isn’t an essay about how much I love this entire beautiful piece of hot, gritty garbage. But if it were, the list would be endless.
From that first moment Keanu Reeves steps into view, for one, cigarette carelessly perched between his lips with that unmistakable Constantine swagger as he says those magic words, “This is Constantine. John Constantine, asshole.” Frankly, this part was perfect for him in the same impossible way that roles like Neo and John Wick were, and no, the absence of a British accent didn’t bother me one bit. He still manages to embody the role like he’s courting death itself, and for 2005, the CGI could have been a lot worse. Its demonic imagery is unsettlingly horrific, with the kind of gruesome body horror that often feels straight out of the pages of a comic book — no doubt in part due to the influence of film writers Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, who also worked on the Hellblazer comics at one time.
But mostly? I’m here to talk about Tilda.
Some of this is a version of a story you’ve already heard before if you’ve read any of the Hellblazer comics. John Constantine is an exorcist, haunted by the sins (and ghosts) of his past and trying to buy his way into heaven. That’s because his soul already marked for hell after the life he took in a botched suicide attempt as a kid, tormented by the demonic visions he just wanted to escape. The twist? He’s also dying of cancer; once a man with a death wish, now his only wish is for more time. Angela, played by the eternally elegant Rachel Weisz, is a cop living a double life and who is unwilling to accept her twin sister’s mysterious death and struggles with her own faith. God and the Devil also have a standing bet for the souls of all mankind, a callous wager on who can get the most points for whose side without any direct interference, just to really spice things up.
In comes Gabriel. The first time we see Tilda Swinton with a full wingspan, it sucks all of the air out of the room and you get weak in the knees before you remember yourself. Who is this smart-mouthed, smooth-talking androgynous fox whose All-Seeing Eye seems to bore right into your already damned soul? It’s the archangel Gabriel, so alluring that the carpet has sexual tension with them.
“I know what you want, son,” Gabriel tells John in a voice like deadly honey, and you’re pretty sure the angel knows what you want, too.
After this film, Swinton would still go on to do countless more memorable roles that would inevitably burn their way into people’s memories. But as brief as her appearances are in Constantine (and they are too brief), it’s still the one my mind reaches for first every time.
Who doesn’t love a rebel angel? Swinton’s ambiguous, glam-rock appearance as Gabriel is both undeniably attractive and menacing at the same time, a David Bowie in image with wings and the dulcet tones of a viper hidden in the grass. Gabriel tells Constantine he’s fucked in a way that sounds as seductive as it does cruel, making it sound like it’s something you might want to be, too, coming off of those lips. Or have you already died and gone to heaven? Too bad this angel has it out for humanity and not in a nice, fun-for-the-whole-family kind of way.
The inevitable turn from rebellious to psychotic angel is less of a surprise as much as delightful confirmation of what you might already know. If someone’s been told they’re on the side of the righteous for long enough, it’s only natural that it’ll eventually go straight to their head. Gabriel is tired of playing by God’s rules, a disgruntled employee deciding to put in two weeks’ notice in a villain’s monologue that only Swinton could deliver with such a wicked, almost child-like glee. “All of you, you just have to repent, and God takes you into his bosom. In all the worlds in all the universe, no other creature can make such a boast, save man. It’s not fair.”
To Gabriel, God has been going too easy on humanity, and as a result, they don’t deserve heaven and all of its offerings. “If sweet, sweet God loves you so, then I’ll make you worthy of his love,” Gabriel tells John in that persisting angelic voice, smooth as silk, having just revealed the plan to forcibly tip the scales to make hell on Earth an imminent reality. Promising to bring the world the kind of pain and suffering to humankind that would make them worthy, Gabriel’s cool exterior turns feral.
“I’ll bring you pain, I’ll bring you horror, so that you may rise above it. So that those of you who survive this reign of hell on Earth will be worthy of God’s love.”
Now, genocidal tendencies aside, the angel’s got a point. Who here hasn’t found themselves looking around their cubicle at one point or another, pissed off because other people seem to be getting rewarded for not doing the work by a crappy boss who also phones it in half the time? Toxic work environments can be a real bitch, and when your employer is the Almighty, there isn’t really much room for growth in the company. Sure, the tactics are a little extreme, but even the best of us could snap under that much pressure eventually, right?
The previously sophisticated, smarmy half-breed has become something violent and untamed, an image only made more convincing by the wild-eyed desperation in Swinton’s face as the depths of the angel’s religious conviction become disturbingly clear. Swinton has a unique talent for metamorphosis, able to inhabit whatever role she’s in so completely that you forget it’s even her before long, that she must truly be the archangel Gabriel sent from Heaven — hellbent on ridding the Earth of all imperfections and confusing God’s image with their own.
She wouldn’t be the first follower of His to do that.
Everyone’s running from some truth — Constantine from his own mortality, Angela from her psychic gifts — but none more so than Gabriel, whose sanctimonious delusions serve as the catalyst for the fate-altering decisions made that end tragically with hurt feelings and a pair of clipped wings. For such a small role, Swinton’s performance is iconic and carries with it a full range of which only she is capable — a bright, shining soldier of heaven emboldened with God’s purpose that quickly falls to an ugly, terrifying creature as they twist that purpose to suit their own the way followers of a faith often do.
While it isn’t a huge surprise that Gabriel ends up going bad, it is oddly satisfying. If you’re anything like me and already dedicated years to watching the likes of SPN (Supernatural, for the uneducated), you’re already well acquainted with the notion that angels are dicks. When you spend most of your time with your head in the clouds, you can end up with all sorts of delusions with no one down to earth around to snap you out of it. And you can see this particular cinematic gem’s influences in all sorts of other shows, like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Good Omens and, of course, the television series Constantine. (It only lasted one season, but Matt Ryan is a treat. Its one fault? A complete and sincere lack of Tilda Swinton.)
The film version of Constantine is a hell of a ride, an enjoyable blend of horror and fantasy that serves as a cult classic in its own right, as good as that last drag of a cigarette before floating up towards the heavens to meet your maker while flipping the devil off behind you. It’s a severely underrated movie that paints an unforgettable picture of an unseen war where the supernatural are locked in an endless battle for souls, homicidal angels are hot right now and everything smells of sulfur.