NB: Spoilers on the remake of a 43 year old mystery movie and adaptation of a 83 year old mystery novel.
I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t do any comparison. This, though? I really liked.
I left the movie wondering about my own sense of justice. I was immediately drawn to Poirot with his seemingly innate sense of right and wrong, balance and imbalance – a sense of the world which draws him to unerringly recognize when it is in error and must be corrected. I make no claims to such an innate sense myself, but it’s a vision of things which inspires and attracts and to which I hope I may in some part attain.
Which makes me so conflicted about the final act of the film, a conflict which, perhaps, mirrors Poirot’s own conflict. In the investigation, he not only come to recognize clues and put together evidence, he’s forced to delve into the pain of these travelers, these, well, murderers. His interviews quickly become like a priest confessing a reluctant penitent, and so he recognizes that these people are, from a certain point of view, commissioners of sin for the most noble of reasons. They are not all-right and all-wrong but the line between such cuts directly through their hearts.
Ratchett/Cassetti, the victim of the plot is deserving of death – if Poirot had uncovered him separate of the movie’s events, he surely would have brought him to justice. However, it appears, beyond a rather tortured conscience, he’s getting away with his heinous crime and the massive domino effect it’s brought about. At least until the mass plan of the 12 vigilantes. But is what they have done, killing him in the night, justice? Or murder?
This is the main conflict of the film’s final act. Poirot is confronted with the 12, each affected deeply by the horrific crime of Ratchett/Cassetti. He knows they are all killers. But similarly, he knows they are each broken, struggling for peace, desirous of finding their own justice.
There’s something of the Wild West about how the film puts the matter – the crime and Poirot’s seeking of the killer occur away from a center of authority, away from police and judges, in the wild, snow packed mountain of Yugoslavia (albeit in the comfort of a world-class Express). In a fashion, that final act foists upon Poirot the authority to mete out justice – he’s the sheriff in town.
Though that’s not entirely true. Poirot and the audience know that real authority is only a few hours away – once the snow is cleared and the train comes to its next stop Poirot must turn over his investigation and, he originally hopes, a culprit for the crime.
So does he turn them in? This is the source of Poirot’s conflict in the final act and it’s mine as well.
Poirot’s answer is to silence his own conscience, to sit with the imbalance of a world where these 12 killers go free – he pins the murder on some uncaught (and imagined) mafioso desirous of vengeance on Ratchett/Cassetti. Branagh plays the part of tortured detective wonderfully; his final attempt to suss out a real killer by offering himself as victim comes off as perhaps a real desire to become a sacrifice for their sins.
But my thoughts? Poirot was wrong to let the 12 go free. He was wrong to simply accept the injustice, even if it may have brought about another sort of justice. I can’t judge him, not being the one bearing-by-confession the pains of these 12 people, but his act can be judged.
Though what does that say of me?
The problem brings to mind Javert of Les Miserables. In chasing Val Jean, Javert brooks no mercy. He is uncompromising in carrying out the law. He would have turned in the 12 without a flutter of conscience.
However, there is a great distinction. Poirot is not simply carrying out the law, he is confronted with the question of justice itself. Javert’s suicide in the end of Les Miserable is because he cannot move beyond carrying out the law to carrying out its spirit in a purer fashion, in carrying out justice. I have great sympathies for that tortured man.
So did Poirot carry out justice by “ignoring the law”? Or did he fail justice? His final comments, a mental letter to the long dead Col. Armstrong, on following his heart and learning to live with the imbalance implies even he knows he failed justice.
The movie is not, I think, about Poirot’s act of mercy – there is no mercy here. The 12 remain horrifically broken, the act of vengeance not bringing peace.
Rather, the lesson of the film is the weight of justice. Not all men can live up to it. Not all men can bear it. Perhaps none can, not wholly. Even the best of us, and Poirot is among them, can break when confronted with the brokenness of man.
Something greater than man is needed, something which will both bear the weight of justice and effect true healing of hearts. Something divine. A comforting Advent thought to end on.