Edward Ratchett is dead. He just doesn’t know it.
Oh, he understands he’s not the most popular chap in Eurasia. The one-time gangster turned shady antiquities dealer receives mysterious and threatening notes, and has for a while. He surmises that “Italians” are behind the notes, angry over a business transaction. When you make a living in the 1930s like Ratchett does, you’re bound to make a few enemies.
But when he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, he little imagines death would be so close at hand. Why would anyone in that sumptuous, first-class car want to murder him?
He pays his private secretary, Hector MacQueen, very well. His valet, Masterman, has served him loyally for years. And the rest of the car is filled with well-bred strangers: The aged princess, Natalia Dragomiroff, and her companion, Hildegarde Schmidt; Rudolph and Elena Andrenyi, a Hungarian count and countess; Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a wealthy widow; Dr. Arbuthnot, a doctor; Antonio Foscarelli, an American car salesman.
Granted, Ratchett may wonder how some passengers could afford a first-class berth aboard the train. Pilar Estravados is just a poor missionary, after all, and Miss Mary Debenham a governess—hardly the sorts of careers should allow one to live in the lap of luxury. But then again, who is Ratchett—a man whose whole life has been defined by ill-gotten gains—to question the livelihoods of his fellow passengers?
And so he takes his private berth, drinks his scotch and sips his coffee, not yet understanding that his death is already in motion. A knife lies hidden. An airtight alibi concocted. The wheels of this complicated murder plot turn and whirl. Soon, Ratchett will be dead, and no one will ever suspect who did it.
But even the most cleverly planned plots, the most intricately mechanized murders, must deal with sudden, unexpected twists, and one seems to be climbing aboard the train right now.
Detective Hercule Poirot.
Poirot is arguably the most famous detective in the world. If you’re in doubt on that point, just ask him. But Poirot, a Belgian with an extravagant mustache and a yen for symmetry, also has a (mostly) unshakeable sense of justice. “Whatever people say, there is right, there is wrong,” he tells someone. “And there is nothing in between.”
Poirot sees evil and ill-intent as blemishes on what should be a good and orderly world. Because of his strange fastidiousness, he says that evil is as obvious as the nose on someone’s face. And when Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to watch his back during the trip, Poirot flatly refuses. “I detect criminals,” he says. “I do not protect them.”
But Poirot’s views are challenged when Ratchett is killed.
“I believe it takes a fracture of the soul to murder another human being,” Poirot initially says. But we quickly learn that Ratchett was even worse than we initially thought, someone who (the film suggests) deserved punishment but who had escaped formal justice. His murder isn’t a matter of personal gain, but an effort to right a long-lingering wrong. Because of that contextual twist, Poirot’s usual self-confidence is shaken. So he—and we moviegoers—are forced to ask some interesting questions about the nature of morality.
We see and hear some of the passengers express honorable thoughts and affection for loved ones long gone. At least two passengers try to take full responsibility for some shady actions in an effort to protect and save others.
Murder on the Orient Express begins at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Poirot is there to discover who stole a precious artifact from one of the city’s Christian churches. The apparent suspects are a priest, a rabbi and a Muslim imam (a group which Poirot himself acknowledges sounds like the setup for a joke). But as Poirot paces back and forth in front of the Wailing Wall (where pious Jews pray), he reveals the actual culprit as the guy tasked with keeping peace in the fractious city. (The Christian relic, encased in a gold box, is pulled out of the officer’s knapsack.)
Once aboard the train, allusions to faith and religion continue apace. Pilar Estravados, the missionary, is, naturally, quite pious. She often references her faith in conversation. But when Ratchett turns up dead, she says cooly, “Some things are in God’s hands.” She also adds that sometimes, “like Lucifer,” people must fall. Pilar admits that she went into missionary work as a sort of penance for some “indulgent times” in her life. “I owed it to God,” she explains. When Poirot notices scars on Pilar’s hands, she says that she works in rough neighborhoods, and she hones her fighting skills in case “God is busy.” “God is always busy,” Poirot counters.
Ratchett refers to the afterlife, admitting to Poirot that if there is such a thing, he will certainly be called to account for his misdeeds. Poirot, too, references faith, declaring that Ratchett’s killer (or killers) will be answerable to “your God and Hercule Poirot.” When Ratchett is found dead, someone says, “God rest his soul,” though perhaps not particularly sincerely. We see plenty of shots of churches and mosques in Jerusalem and Istanbul. There are references to some of the passengers’ Jewish ancestry.
When Poirot gathers the suspects together for the climactic reveal, they sit at a table, arranged to recall Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper.
Mrs. Hubbard, the widow, fends off Ratchett’s leering advances, telling him that he messed up as soon as he opened his mouth. She seems to be attracted to Poirot, though. When he runs into her in the hallway, he apologizes for getting in her way: “I meant no disrespect,” he says. “Well, you could’ve meant a little,” Hubbard says coyly. She also talks about her former husbands. When someone doubts her word about whether there was a strange man in her bedroom, she quips, “I know what it feels like to have a man in my room.”
Bouc, an Orient Express official, meets Poirot in an Istanbul kitchen and introduces the woman he’s with as a prostitute.
Someone, obviously, is murdered in Murder on the Orient Express: Ratchett is stabbed several times. We see the body from above, Ratchett’s nightshirt stained with blood. We also see a flashback to the murder itself, though the camera never shows the knife hit the body.
Hubbard gets stabbed in the back with the murder weapon: She survives, but we see the handle sticking out of her back and, later, the stabbing itself. Neither scene shows the actual wound or subsequent blood.
Hotheaded Count Andrenyi punches and knocks around several journalists for taking pictures of him and his wife. Later, he forcefully pushes Poirot out of a train berth.
A man gets knocked unconscious by a cane stuck in a wall. Someone’s shot, and we see a bit of blood from the wound. A couple of folks scrum on some bridge scaffolding, with one falling from one level to a lower one. The train derails after an avalanche. One of the characters is dying from an inoperable disease. Guns are pointed.
We hear a tragic story from the not-so-distant past: A little girl was kidnapped and later murdered. The murder was so traumatizing to the girl’s pregnant mother that she went into premature labor, which neither she nor the baby survived. The father later committed suicide, as did an innocent maid accused of the crime, we also hear.
Five uses of “d–n,” including one paired with “God.” God’s name is misused another four times. We also hear characters say “h—” four times and use the British profanity “bloody” once.
Ratchett was apparently drugged with a barbiturate before being murdered. Some of the passengers had access to the drug, we learn. But the most obvious was Countess Elena Andrenyi, who confesses to Poirot that she takes “oceans of it,” both to go to sleep and to give her the courage to face the world.
People drink on the train, too, and some scenes take place in a well-appointed bar. Arbuthnot provides MacQueen with an airtight alibi, telling Poirot that the two of them were drinking and smoking until 2 a.m. the night Ratchett was murdered. (Arbuthnot, the doctor on scene, placed the time of the killing between midnight and 2 a.m.). We see Hubbard with a martini in her hand.
Bouc pours champagne for the train’s guests. When the missionary Pilar refuses, Bouc asks if champagne disagrees with her.
“Sin does not agree with me,” Pilar tells him, adding that vice is how the devil catches his victims.
One of the train’s passengers, Gerhard Hardman, expresses racist sentiments to Mary Debenham—comparing the mixing of races to red and white wine. “To mix the red wine with the white would be to ruin them both,” he says. Debenham immediately pours the wines together and takes a sip. “I like a good rosé,” she says.
When in Jerusalem, Poirot steps in a pile of animal excrement. Poirot, bothered more by things not being perfectly symmetrical than any foul smell or sensation, places his other foot in the mess and goes on about his business.
One of the train’s passengers, Gerhard Hardman, expresses some obnoxiously racist sentiments, but he’s not the only passenger who insults others based on race or nationality. And pretty much everyone—except, naturally, for Poirot—lies and keeps secrets.
“Sometimes, the law of man is not enough.”
So Poirot is told, and so we’re encouraged to believe in this, the newest adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous tales. Sure, Ratchett is technically the “victim” of this murder plot. But we quickly learn that Ratchett—for most of his long, dark life—left a trail of victims in his wake. And as the movie goes on, it works overtime to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t so much a vile murder as it was a form of justice. When our panel of suspects is lined up in homage to da Vinci’s The Last Supper, it’s done with intent: Our eyes are drawn to the character sitting in Jesus’ spot—a martyr ultimately willing to sacrifice everything so that others might live.
But the movie also gives voice to what is really going on here: vengeance. And what does God say about vengeance? It is His. Ratchett was right in telling Poirot that he’d be called to account for his past misdeeds in the afterlife: It’s not the responsibility of any passenger on the Orient Express to make him terminally pay for it in this one.
The film’s attempt to justify vengeance isn’t the only problem I have with this newest version of Murder on the Orient Express. While perhaps we might laud the movie’s focus on the issue of morality, that same focus detracts us from the traditional charm of Christie-style mysteries: The intricacies of the plot, the cleverness of the detective, the cat-and-mouse interplay between suspect and law, the match of wits between culprit and cop. In the classic 1974 movie of the same name, the focus was always—and rightly, I believe—on Poirot’s stellar detective work. In this version, how the crime was committed, and how the case was solved, is shuffled off as an afterthought.
Still, let’s not lose sight of what Murder on the Orient Express does offer—a content-light mystery that feels true to the more genteel time it was written. Yes, murder forms the foundation of this story. But given that bloody premise, we see very little blood, hear only a smidgen of bad language, sense just hints of sexuality. Lose the dead body, and we might be looking at a PG film.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.