The Third Murder
Earlier this year, master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes for his latest drama, Shoplifters, a film that’s well in line with the sort of complex, genteel, and emotionally loaded dramas that he’s been known to produce. While I’m thrilled that a filmmaker like Kore-eda has finally been receiving more widespread recognition for his work in recent years, it’s a shame that The Third Murder – a film that premiered at Venice and TIFF back in the fall but is currently making its way into theatrical release – is a daring, but equally thoughtful change of pace that seems destined to get lost in the shuffle. The Third Murder will likely be considered in the future as “minor Kore-eda” by many critics, but if this becomes one of his least discussed works, it still bears the mark of being made by one of this generation’s best filmmakers.
Hokkaido based defense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), the son of a prominent, retired judge, has been brought on at the last second to take on a high profile murder case that his boss (Kôtarô Yoshida) seemingly wants nothing to do with. The defendant, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), has confessed to murdering his boss and setting the corpse on fire in a field near an industrial area. Having previously served a thirty year jail sentence for killing and robbing two people, Misumi is facing the death penalty for his latest crime. Shigemori’s duty isn’t so much to prove the innocence of his client, but to save the man from execution. Shigemori, who has problems at home with his increasingly rebellious teenage daughter (Aju Makita) attempts to track down Misumi’s estranged 36-year old daughter, with hopes that the woman will act as a character witness in her father’s trial. But as Shigemori looks closer into the case and cuts through his client’s increasingly convoluted lies, the lawyer discovers a somewhat more righteous and emotionally driven motivation for the murder, and that he might not have to look further than the victim’s own daughter (Suzu Hirose) to find the character witness he so desperately seeks. Shigemori’s biggest moral conundrum comes from the fact that the truth, no matter how noble, could cause people that Misumi cares about to face even more pain and persecution in the future.
Basing his narrative around subjects as bleak as murder, child abuse, and absentee parenting sounds on a surface level like a complete about-face for a usually gentle filmmaker like Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm). While most of his works deal with characters who’ve suffered emotionally and physically in the past, The Third Murder is the rare occasion where Kore-eda plunges headlong into darker territory, changing his style and approach in the process, but never losing sight of the overwhelming humanity and grace that mark his previous works. Like his other recent films, The Third Murder is all about discovering and employing empathy, told through the eyes of characters who could use it the most. It doesn’t look or even sound like much of Kore-eda’s previous output, but the emotions, rhythms, and overall worldly viewpoint remain wholly intact.
Abandoning his usually brighter aesthetic, the look of The Third Murder shows a bleaker side of Kore-eda’s visual skill set. Much of the film’s action unfolds in tiny apartments, cluttered offices, ugly looking fields full of long since dead grasses, industrial parks, courtrooms, and detention centre interview rooms. The Third Murder also marks the first time that Kore-eda has shot a film entirely in a widescreen format, meaning that the encroaching, often banal darkness becomes inescapable at all times. It’s all rather cold and distancing, two words that are almost never associated with Kore-eda’s work, but it functions brilliantly as a reflection of the narrative’s life and death struggles. It’s also a gambit that forces the viewer to engage with the material on a deeper level to find any sort of catharsis. It’s not a film that finds Kore-eda suddenly trying to shock people out of their seats. That would be a massive and even more curious departure for him, if that were the case. The Third Murder doesn’t want to make you scared or devolve you into a blubbering mess of tears. It aims for a quieter, less easily identifiable form of sadness and regret that makes one look for closure and nuance in some fairly dark places.
Like some of Kore-eda’s other works, The Third Murder is a slow build. The first hour doesn’t get anywhere near the courtroom and focuses predominantly on Shigemori’s search for further disclosure and evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s admirable that Kore-eda’s material is running counter to established courtroom movie clichés. There are many lengthy sequences of people talking back and forth about what happened and how they feel about it, with an awkward dinner sequence between the victim’s daughter and mother (Yuki Saitô) and a nearly ten minute long exchange between lawyer and client offering truth, but little closure. The purpose here isn’t for Kore-eda to show how the search for judicial truth is difficult and tenable, but to show that truth and intent are vastly different concepts, ones that are imperfectly discerned through a court of law’s ethical and moral standards. Such lengthy and decidedly less than flashy sequences are staples of Kore-eda’s filmography, and the setting and story make them feel warranted and necessary. The Third Murder might be one of the few films about a capital murder trial that moves at an appropriately slow pace.
Fukuyama adapts well to Kore-eda’s experimenting, bringing the same amount of fatherly longing and understanding that he did to the filmmaker’s Like Father, Like Son, a work that closely mirrors this one in pacing and overall intent. Hirose similarly pulls from her previous work with Kore-eda on Our Little Sister to portray a young woman who’s been physically and emotionally broken long before her father was murdered. While they’re well versed in Kore-eda’s technique, the best and most surprising performance comes from Yoshida, an actor who uses the chops he’s honed in genre cinema to form a complex portrait of a murder suspect. There’s no way to tell from Misumi’s body language or inflection if he’s telling the truth or not, and the actor brilliantly locks those key details away in the character’s mind throughout. It’s a quietly dazzling performance that provides Kore-eda’s story with an unexpected moral backbone.
The Third Murder is somewhat cluttered by Kore-eda’s often emotionally precise standards, and the change in tone might vex some of the filmmaker’s newfound devotees, but the timing of this change of pace makes perfect sense to me. Nestled between two films that are destined to be cemented as masterworks in Kore-eda’s canon, The Third Murder offers the filmmaker a chance to mount an ambitious, atypical, but no less resounding experimental shift. Some will dismiss this as a filmmaker getting something out of their system before returning to form. That’s completely incorrect. This is still the work of an auteur who knows exactly what their form is, and applying it to a different use makes it no less valid as any other work. For now, The Third Murder appears as a curious blip on his filmmaking radar, but like some of history’s best films, I feel that Kore-eda’s latest will inspire many future critical reappraisals. So why don’t you see it now and tell everyone you told them so later?
The Third Murder opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, July 20, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The Third Murder: