At its best, The Third Murder exudes a sense of breezy heartbreak that’s characteristic of the work of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who uses a murder mystery as a springboard for another of his examinations of the Japanese caste system. Kore-eda is a master of in-between moments, in which his plots take a back seat for character riffs that paint a cumulative portrait of a society in disarray. For instance, in this film, when hotshot defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) instructs a protégé to buy a gift for the bereaved family of a client’s victim, they agree that they should get the “usual gift” which telegraphs the roteness of Shigemori’s empathy. Shigemori discounts empathy outright in fact, claiming that one doesn’t get to know their client, as law is merely a matter of negotiation. Of course, Shigemori will learn the errors of his ways per the dictates of the courtroom drama, but not before Kore-eda stages sequences of agonizing confessional intensity.
In The Third Murder, as in his other films, Kore-eda informs tragedy with a distinctive kind of qualified humor that’s realistic of how people process atrocity. Such a multitude of tones is hard enough to achieve let alone sustain, and so, at his least inspired, Kore-eda allows his films to sink into a tedious structure in which transcendence and misery are compared and contrasted in alternating scenes that revel in an over-digested preachiness. Both of these tendencies are present in The Third Murder. Kore-eda potently lands his points about the Japanese justice system with comedy, especially when a debauched Shigemori discusses a new case with his tribe of legal compatriots, who include the older, memorably fussy Settsu (Kôtarô Yoshida). What’s the difference between killing for money and killing in a crime of passion in which you then steal the victim’s money? With a good lawyer, that can be the difference between the death penalty and life in prison.
Shigemori and Settsu are legal warriors who’ve been worn down by the seeming arbitrariness of such legal distinctions, understanding that narrative matters. When Kore-eda observes the attorneys in their office, joking and hammering out a story that refuses to cohere, The Third Murder achieves the supple satirical tenor of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. But Kore-eda also has a didactic streak that’s commanding as well as hectoring. Shigemori and Settsu’s new client, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), is a staple of the mystery genre: a person involved in a seemingly unwinnable dilemma. Misumi is a middle-aged ex-con with sad and intelligent eyes, who murdered his factory boss in cold blood, bludgeoning the man in the back of the head with a wrench and burning the body on a river bank. The film opens with this graphic murder, and Misumi confesses to the crime outright, leaving only a matter of whether this case can be talked down from the death penalty.
Misumi’s story has wide-ranging social implications, and it grows unwieldy as Shigemori interviews him and the factory worker’s family. Misumi changes his account of the murder every time Shigemori speaks with him, even altering his personality. Initially, Misumi seems out to lunch, potentially in shock from his actions, only to gradually grow wrathful and, eventually, resigned to his fate, though not before attempting to assert his innocence after copping a plea, certainly damning whatever credibility he might have had. For a while, it seems as if the film is moving into the terrain of Primal Fear, in which a client is a mastermind orchestrating an astonishingly intricate web of deceit. But the truth of Misumi is sadder and (somewhat) less reassuringly outlandish.
Kore-eda delights in piling on complications that lead the audience away from the question of Misumi’s guilt. Instead, the filmmaker revels in the textures of the world that Misumi has left behind. There’s a biting sequence at the factory where Misumi was employed, where a co-worker tells Shigemori’s protégé that their boss favored hiring ex-cons, who have less freedom to protest low pay and unfavorable conditions. After a pause, the man baits the investigator to guess what he did, underlining the social differences between them. Later, the factory boss’s family is revealed to be imprisoned by secrets of its own, and these sequences complement the scenes at Shigemori’s law office and the factory to forge a portrait of a class system that suppresses convicts and the poverty-stricken so as to keep the gears turning for the fortunate.
As always, Kore-eda proves to be a poet of faces, and there’s a brilliant composition in which Shigemori and Misumi’s visages merge from opposing sides of a glass visiting booth without quite fully overlapping. The beautiful, ghostly image suggests that Shigemori is close to achieving a total empathy with his client, as if he’s finally knowing the truth of the man’s life, but is unable to fully sync up with this haunted consciousness. Such a moment justifies the strain of other scenes, which are held for similar lengths of time without bearing the fruits of such catharsis. Which is to say that The Third Murder seems awfully slow for its own sake, as the existential quandaries of the second half drain the film of the lively amorality that powers its first hour. Kore-eda is a bracing social comedian who doesn’t entirely trust those talents here. Aiming for Dickensian irony, Kore-eda fashions an intriguingly obsessive yet belabored riff on the murder mystery.