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“Murder on the Orient Express” and the Desire for Justice

December 29, 2017


NOTE: This review contains spoilers.


I love a good murder mystery.

One of the latest murder mystery movies, Murder on the Orient Express, is a classic tale of intrigue in a “whodunit” style. With a twist of fate and a call to continue his work as the greatest detective in the world, Hercule Poirot, played by the remarkable Kenneth Branagh, finds himself aboard the Orient Express headed to Calais, a town in north France. Suddenly a massive avalanche blocks the tracks and as the train is stalled a passenger is murdered. With a list of intriguing characters to investigate, Poirot can’t help but dive into the work of bringing the killer to justice. Poirot is famous for his constant need of scaling the balance of justice, so much so that at one point he steps in animal feces and to make sure the balance is found he places his other foot in the same pile. At first glance, the tale is a simple search for justice. But, as the story unfolds we find the inescapable communion of persons and the far-reaching effects of sin and our desire to find a scapegoat for our pain.

Edward Ratchett, played by Johnny Depp, ominously offers Hercule pay for protection as he knows that people are out to get him. After Hercule declines the offer, we find Ratchett’s body gruesomely stabbed a dozen times in his compartment. As a team begins the work to clear the track of the obstruction, Poirot begins his investigation. In the process Poirot finds a partially damaged note connecting Ratchett to the kidnapping of a little girl named Daisy Armstrong. The famously shocking kidnapping ended with a paid ransom note and the death of the poor girl. This event then led to the death of her mother after prematurely giving birth to a stillborn son due to the stress, the suicide of the father, and the suicide of the nursemaid who was wrongly arrested for the kidnapping.

As the story unfolds, we find that Ratchett has changed his name from his previously held name John Cassetti, little Daisy Armstrong’s kidnapper and murderer. Through his investigations of every character on the train, Poirot finds that every single person is connected to the Armstrong’s in some way and thus had a motive to murder Ratchett. The more obvious being Mrs. Hubbard, who we come to find is Daisy’s grandmother. As Poirot questions each and every suspect, the picture becomes darker and darker and the lives of so many which have been affected in some way due to the horrendous act of Ratchett.

Lo and behold, Mrs. Hubbard admits that she gathered each of the people onto this one train with the plot to kill Ratchett, which is followed by one of the more disturbing scenes of the movie as each of the twelve people suspected take their turns stabbing Ratchett. Once Poirot becomes aware of the profundity of the number of killers, he finds himself stuck between his desire for justice and the intense effect that Daisy’s murder had on each and every one of them. Feeling empathy for their seeming justification for killing Ratchett, he invites the people to shoot him because he must expose the truth. Mrs. Armstrong then grabs the gun and tries to kill herself, but the gun is unloaded. Mrs. Hubbard then begs Poirot for the forgiveness of the other passengers, “They’re not killers. They’re good people. They can be good again.”

Poirot then concludes that the actions of Mr. Ratchett indeed deserved death, so rather than turning in every suspect, he allows for the imbalance. All he asks is that the continuance of heartbreak and anger stop; that each person find in their heart the ability to accept their actions and seek peace.

“I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger, giving way to the poison of deep grief, until one crime became many. I have always wanted to believe that man is rational and similised. My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and methods and the little grey cells, but now perhaps I am asked to listen instead to my heart. I have understood in this case that the scales of justice cannot always be evenly weighed and I must learn for once to live with the imbalance.”

This story is the story of sin. So often we think that our sins result only in the harm of ourselves. However, this is an incorrect understanding of human nature. We are simply not the autonomous individuals that we wish we were. Our sins cause a deep ripple effect throughout the rest of humanity and we often never know what our actions lead to. The incredibly dark actions of Mr. Ratchett led to the death of three more people through their grief and suffering. His actions then led to an internal death of conscience as they plotted and carried out the blood-ridden murder of the very man that started the pain of so many. However, as is evident in this story, once the murder occurs, one which many of us would certainly feel Ratchett might’ve deserved, the perpetrators are unfulfilled and even more deeply stained by their own sins.

Interestingly, Poirot, who reminded me of a comedic Inspector Javert, acts as a Christ-figure in that he steps in a breaks the cycle of violence and blame. Rather than follow through with the expected response of turning in these twelve people, which might then lead to a life of crime and even more pain, he finds a way to absorb the guilt and invites them to a new way of life, one of forgiveness and recognizing that man can change for the better. Sometimes the scales of justice are indeed off balance, because mercy and forgiveness will always outweigh our sins.

The love that each of these characters had for the poor victim, Daisy, led them to places they never thought they would travel. What Poirot ultimately invites them to do is use that same power of love to change their lives and live one worthy of the memory of Daisy. This story hits the deeper questions of the human soul. Pain, suffering, sin; they’re all part of what it means to be human, but what we are called to do is interrupt the cycle and instead bring faith, hope, and love into the hearts, minds, and souls of those who all seek the light of Christ.