With The Third Murder, Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda turns from his usual examination of family dynamics to something more nebulous. As much as the auteur (he also edits his movies) has looked at the subtleties tying love and tensions between familial relatives in his career, Kore-eda doesn’t often ponder such wide-spanning notions as how people exist in their own versions of the truth and how that connects them to others. With what seems to be a clear cut film about a trio of attorneys looking to find the best defense for a self-confessed killer, Kore-eda takes the viewer down a rabbit hole of lies — or better put a clash of stories — to reveal something fundamentally complex about people.
On a superficial level, The Third Murder seems to render the legal system obsolete when it comes to presenting the facts in the stories interpreted by police, victims, lawyers and the confessed killer Misumi (Kôji Yakusho). Beyond these characters are the perspectives of relatives, including empathy, intuition, compassion, beliefs, interpretation of justice and of course: lies. The lies appear in various forms: including white lies, lies of omission, deception (including self-deceptive lies). Some lies become incriminating, some obscure deeper mysteries and some show hypocrisy. There’s also the trouble with what makes us human: inconsistency. This spectrum of lying culminates into an experience that may frustrate those looking for a thrilling investigation into murder where justice should be satisfying and evil definitive. Instead, the film calls into question whether there can ever be justice or even closure.
The film is never cryptic. Kore-eda has long shown his expertise in capturing the complexity of people with directly crafted dialogue and smart editing. It’s as simple as a comical moment when the attorneys’ secretary offers a digression to moan, “No more barbecue meat for a while.” Then, a few scenes later, during a working lunch, she’s frying up steak on a hibachi. On a more complex level, there’s a scene that recalls the power of Sarah Polley’s documentary, Stories We Tell (Film Review: Stories We Tell reveals the elusive quality of truth). The father of Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), one of the defense attorneys, was a judge on Misumi’s first murder trial, where he showed sympathy for the man after he killed a pair of loan sharks. Now that someone else has died, the father (Isao Hashizume) expresses his regret to Shigemori, calling Misumi nothing more than a beast. He warns Shigemori, “People hardly understand members of their own family, much less strangers.”
In Japan, murder trials don’t seem too different from such trials in the U.S., according to the film. There is a jury, a prosecutor and a defense team, not to mention the death penalty. But there is much more going on. Kore-eda uses his usual minimalist color palette of blues, whites and browns often in wide shot, presenting action in a manner that does not try to lead on the audience’s feelings. The music score is spare. Though it includes a minor key piano melody by Ludovico Einaudi, it seems more resigned than melancholic. Finally, what always stands out are the stories the characters tell that raise questions to the facts, despite what appears to be a clear act of murder at the film’s opening. Visually, as the stories grow more complicated, Kore-eda plays with a plastic partition during prison visits that at first separate Shigemori and Misumi. As the film proceeds, though, the camera focuses less on the men and more on their reflections, which begin to merge them together. Despite their different experiences and perspectives, they are united. It may seem heavy-handed, but it’s as close to closure as you can come in a world where the truth is elusive, if it exists at all.
The Third Murder runs 124 minutes, is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Aug. 17. Up in West Palm Beach, it will screen exclusively at the Lake Worth Playhouse on Friday, Aug. 31. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Film Movement sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.