The Third Murder (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A frustrating exercise in ambiguity

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Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film “The Third Murder” is a frustrating exercise in ambiguity. At first, everything seems pretty simple in a murder case at the center of the story, but then it turns out that the case may be a lot more complicated, and the movie adamantly refuses to give any simple answer even in the end. While that storytelling choice could result in something compelling for us, the movie fails to generate enough human interest to engage us, and that was quite a surprise for me considering how effortlessly many of Kore-eda’s works interested me and then touched me.

As shown during the opening scene, the murder in question is committed by a middle-aged ex-con named Misumi (Kōji Yakusho). The victim, whose body was burned after he was killed, was the owner of a factory where he worked, and it looks like he was murdered just because of money, though Misumi did not say much about his motive after being arrested by the police.

Misumi is going to be defended by a trio of lawyers at the upcoming trial, and one of his lawyers, named Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama, who previously collaborated with Kore-eda in “Like Father, Like Son” (2013)), turns out to be indirectly connected with Misumi. Around 30 years ago, Misumi was brought to a trial for committing a double murder, and it was Shigemori’s judge father who presided over that trial. When Shigemori later asks his father about that trial, his father replies without any hesitation that now he thinks he was too generous to Misumi at that time. After serving his lighter sentence, Misumi seemed to be rehabilitated and he even sent a sincere postcard to Shigemori’s father, but then he committed that murder not long after sending that postcard, and that was surely more than enough for Shigemori’s father to become rather skeptical about whether rehabilitation is actually possible for guys like Misumi.

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Anyway, Shigemori and his two colleagues continue to try as much as they can as Misumi’s lawyers. Because there is not much doubt on Misumi’s crime, they decide to focus on reducing his possible sentence, so they begin to work in two directions. They try to persuade the victim’s family to show a little compassion to Misumi, and they also try to prove that the nature of Misumi’s crime is technically less heinous than the prosecution team claims.

However, the more they delve into the case, the more Shigemori becomes unsure about the case. When he visits the crime scene along with one of his colleagues, he notices that the body was laid on the ground in a rather formal way, and he gradually comes to wonder about Misumi’s motive. Was it really motivated by his need for money? If it was not, what was really his motive?

Unfortunately, Misumi is not someone who can easily divulge whatever he is hiding behind his mostly detached façade. He has already changed his words on his motive behind the murder several times, and we are surprised to learn later that he did the pretty much same thing when he was arrested for that double murder in the past. While firmly maintaining his character’s elusiveness, Kōji Yakusho did a nice job of subtly suggesting his character’s feelings and thoughts, and, despite our increasing bafflement, we become more attentive to every word and nuance from his untrustworthy character.

Things get more complicated after Misumi tells a magazine reporter something quite unexpected. I will not reveal anything here for avoiding spoilers, but I guess that I can tell you instead that, after that plot turn, Shigemori comes to focus more on the victim’s teenager daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), who, as implied by her first scene in the movie, seems to know something about the case. She is visibly conflicted, and she may tell something advantageous for Misumi if she is persuaded enough by Shigemori.

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Now the movie may look like your average courtroom thriller to some of you, but it leisurely moves from one plot point from another instead, and that can be quite frustrating for you. Even after the trial eventually begins around the middle point of the story, the movie continues to stick to its glacial narrative pacing, and it does not generate enough tension to hold our attention. Accordingly, we come to observe it from the distance, rather than getting involved in its story and characters.

The movie was a really strange experience for me because I did not have any problem with Kore-eda’s slow, thoughtful storytelling approach before. His notable films like “Still Walking” (2008) and “After the Storm” (2016) may be too slow for some of you, but they never failed to engage me on emotional levels, and I was always moved by their gentle humanity. In case of “The Third Murder”, I merely felt distant while not caring much about its story and characters, and I only found myself annoyed by its manipulative ambiguity instead of being intrigued by it.

Overall, “The Third Murder” is disappointing, but I sort of admire that Kore-eda tries something different here, and I was not completely bored during my viewing at least. I liked its several small nice human moments such as the earnest conversation scene between Shigemori and his adolescent daughter, and I certainly appreciated its cold, gloomy atmosphere which is palpably established on the screen by cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto. The movie is a misfire indeed, but it is an interesting one at least.

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