Film Review: The Third Murder

Defense lawyer finds his convictions challenged during a murder trial in an uncompromising drama from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.
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Known mostly for powerful family dramas, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda changes gears with a dark, ambiguous courtroom drama. Technically splendid but emotionally distant, The Third Murder will seem more like a detour than a destination for his fans.

At night by a waterfront in an industrial part of Yokohama, we see Misumi (Koji Yakusho) bludgeon a victim and set the corpse on fire. Kore-eda (writer and editor here as well as director) cuts to the defense lawyers who will handle Misumi's case. Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama, a lead in Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son) has a peculiar connection to the defendant. His father, a judge, sentenced Misumi to 30 years in prison after a previous murder case.

Interrogating the prisoner at a detention center proves frustrating. Misumi keeps changing his story, agreeing with anything the lawyers suggest, backtracking from previous statements, disavowing details from his confession.

Shigemori and his team investigate the victim's family, especially his daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose). A high-school student who walks with a pronounced limp, Sakie was seen with Misumi before her father's murder. And her mother may also have been involved with the killer.

At the start of the case, Shigemori isn't afraid to share his strong principles. He believes some people should never have been born, and have no real control over their destinies. But as the case proceeds and new complexities unfold, Shigemori finds it more and more difficult to follow the rules. He's also unnerved to realize how closely his personality aligns with Misumi's.

To a surprising degree, The Third Murder follows settings and situations familiar from decades of shows like "Law & Order." Lawyers stay up late arguing evidence and strategies, only they're eating ramen instead of pizza. Opposing teams try to influence a judge's rulings in backroom confabs. Witnesses are tricked into revealing more than they want. A clue suddenly gains new meaning.

But Kore-eda avoids the narrative drive of a typical courtroom drama, instead muddying narrative waters by confusing the facts. (He also has cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto obscure the frame with out-of-focus shapes.) Flashbacks show different versions of the murder, witnesses recant testimony, and through it all Misumi impassively awaits a judgment he knows he doesn't deserve.

"No one here tells the truth," Sakie observes at one point, and while it's a valid point to make, it's also as dramatically unsatisfying as the criminal justice system itself. (Hirose, so radiant in Kore-eda's Our Little Sister, is impressive in a challenging role.)

Kore-eda, one of cinema's premier directors, never falters during The Third Murder. But he never quite conquers the formula either. His next film, Shoplifters, won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival.