This article contains major plot spoilers.
“Sometimes the law of man is not enough.”—Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017).
The most profound prose conceals its hero in a seemingly alternative narrative, awaiting that crucial moment to unmask his heroism. This complex story employs sleight of hand to distract the audience from its genuine thesis and climax until the very last moments.
Then the sheer perspicacity rushes upon you, unexpectedly. You at last understand. You understand that your hero is not merely one who defeats the evil in favor of the good, but one who willingly sacrifices himself for the sake of others.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is this kind of classic story, and it has found a new adaptation in theaters this month. Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, Kenneth Branagh (directing) and Michael Green (screen adaptation) not only display their directorial prowess, a star-studded cast, and Branagh’s acting competence, but expose yet another generation to what it means to tell powerful stories. This tale is brazenly revelatory of the human condition.
A Journey from Jerusalem Into the West
The entire scenario begins obviously enough. It depicts a world-famous and impeccably flawless detective: Hercule Poirot, portrayed by Branagh. Even Poirot’s breakfast eggs must be the same size. Everything must be in its place. Everything must be in order. Everything can be resolved. In Poirot, we have our perfect hero.
Seemingly by happenstance, Poirot ends up on the Orient Express, a famous cross-Europe train. The journey originates in Jerusalem and finds its terminus in western Europe, and by extension, America. As if by some divine plan, this story mirrors the path of a major world religion: Christianity. This foreshadows the entirety of the plot.
Once the train is in motion, the obvious happens: The murder of one “Edward Ratchett,” portrayed by Johnny Depp. Ratchett is the epitome of evil. From the outset, the story makes it clear that this scoundrel is a gangster who traffics in counterfeit works of art. It later reveals that not only is he a huckster, but a murderer trading under a false name. All this signals that somehow the death of this demon was warranted.
Naturally, the incomparable Poirot is employed to unravel the mystery and find the killer. This is where Christie most brilliantly employs her sleight of hand. She labors the audience with seemingly endless investigatory interviews and damning revelations about certain characters. But something doesn’t quite fit. All of Poirot’s interviews reveal something damning, but the audience is deliberately distracted from pinpointing what.
To varying degrees, all of them seem guilty. We just can’t seem to discover the genuine culprit. In one sequence, “Gerhard Hardman” (Willem Dafoe) is unmasked as a fraud and seems guilty. In an intense chase scene, “Hector MacQueen” (Josh Gad) appears to be the man Poirot wants. Yet this all is misdirection. We’re looking for the murderer while Christie is getting ready to blindside us with a climax so profound, it staggers the imagination.
Slowly the Pieces Come Together
Christie slowly pieces together the murderer’s motive: revenge for a different murder, long ago, of a young girl. Daisy was kidnapped for a ransom then murdered, upon which her mother and unborn sibling die in labor. The bereaved husband then takes his own life. It’s a tragic chain of events with far-reaching effects. Slowly but surely, we discover how this heinous crime has deeply affected the entire cast aboard the Orient Express.
Poirot is forced to conclude that a grand conspiracy is afoot. One by one, the travelers openly admit their motives to avenge the murder of young Daisy and join in Ratchett’s murder. Poirot’s eyes widen in shock as he realizes the truth. Either he must lie about the conspiracy, thus soiling his spotless reputation as an investigator, or someone will have to murder him to conceal the plan.
He hands “Caroline Hubbard” (Michelle Pfeiffer), the mastermind, his revolver. With shaken hands, she grasps the gun, suddenly puts it to her own throat, and pulls the trigger. All hear the anticlimactic “click” of a pistol being dryfired. She’s passed Poirot’s test. Instead of blaming others for her sins, Hubbard accepts full responsibility.
Finally, Poirot is set to sacrifice himself for the sins of the people on the Orient Express. Given his perfect record, of course the officials accept his story whole cloth as the train disembarks from its arduous journey. The conspirators are set free to live unburdened from the sin of their murderous revenge. Poirot takes the punishment for their evil upon himself.
Self-Sacrifice for the Ultimate Good
In the route of the Orient Express, Christie signaled that her audience would witness the movement of a perfect self-sacrifice—the apotheosis of Christianity—spread to the West and throughout the world. The “hero” is not merely one who defeats evil with good, but one who defeats evil by sacrificing himself for the ultimate good.
Throughout the story, Poirot is seen reading from Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.” That tale ends with Sydney Carton’s famous last words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” Poirot mimics this self-giving act, itself a mimicry of Christ’s for the world.
In asserting that “the law of man is not enough,” co-conspirator Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) did not espouse injustice but ultimate justice; a justice that men cannot grasp without the help of God. It is not man’s justice but God’s that says a perfect, self-sacrificial man can atone for the evils of other men. Indeed, St. Paul teaches us in Romans 3 that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross “was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier.” Christie, and now Green and Branagh, use Poirot to remind us of he who is both “just and the justifier.”
Timeless Truths Throughout ‘Orient Express’
Christie’s mystery reminds us that evil deeds have consequences that can be much more far-reaching than we realize. Left unchecked and unresolved, that evil will one day catch up with us. Rachett teaches us this lesson.
Additionally, we must realize that justice is a basic and visceral human trait. Just punishment for evil cannot be avoided. When injustice occurs and punishment is not equitably distributed to the perpetrators, that punishment will be transferred to the victims.
Finally, we also see that justice extends beyond the reach of human reason. We cannot simply hope to avenge ourselves against those who have harmed us. We cannot simply murder our way out of our problems, no matter how elaborate our scheme might be. Put simply, someone must take the just punishment for our many sins.
When that does not happen, the effects of this evil ripples out like some enormous earthquake that results in a tidal wave, destroying everything in its path. Justice must be served, or we all are murderers. We confront with the cold, hard reality that none of us are innocent. Not one. And man’s law is not enough. We need something higher.
Obviously, none of this suggests that we should murder to achieve our vision of justice. Rather, it suggests that when we find ourselves thrust into violence, we can appeal to a higher court than our own. We can realize that perhaps a real-life Poirot doesn’t merely exist in myth and fiction. Additionally, we might just realize that we can lay down our lives for the sake of justice for others.
I doubt that Christie or Green meant to communicate all this. Christie is first and foremost a story teller. Her religious and political persuasions take a backseat to that. However, it seems when one purposes oneself to create powerful stories, this is when her beliefs are most persuasive. Sadly, most modern fiction writers reverse these priorities. We can only hope that Branagh and Green’s work here might help revive the bygone era of great stories like “Murder on the Orient Express,” and its older incarnations.