There are not many directors whose sense of storytelling is as indebted to the shaky ambiguities between the truth and lies as recent Cannes winner Hirozaku Kore-eda, and before his prize-winning turn with the sentimental family piece, Shoplifters, he made a polarizing legal thriller that one would expect his thematic concerns to stick to effortlessly.
The Third Murder is a bizarre court drama about a murderer whose motives are clouded by his ambivalence and his utter affability to the legal process and his defense counsel, who work desperately – probing his case, not for justice or an ultimate truth of what transpired, but rather for what convenient truth will play the best to the jury.
While Kore-eda sloppily sidesteps the genre hook of the court film, which anticipates a solved mystery and justice served, he builds the whole film off a morally unstable base, where every revelation brought about from deliberation casts more uncertainty over whether or not the courts are even capable of definitively finding the truth.
One can claim that The Third Murder is rhetorically charged, and Kore-eda navigates his argument with a clarity and precision one has come expect from Japan’s independent darling, but as a film designed to deliver this message, the experience is more hollow and preachy than you would hope.
In a provocative act of subverted expectations, clearly intended to have his audience questioning everything that follows, Kore-eda begins by showing us the brutal murder and body disposal perpetrated by Misumi (a flustered and unreadable Koji Yakusho) in a beautifully staged scene of pointless violence. From this apparent representation of objective fact, we transfer over to the lawyer for his defence Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), who begins to bend said facts into a workable motive that is most likely to spare him the death penalty.
As he does so, his evidence gathering brings to light other possible motives and facets to the case, and gradually the layers become so indiscernible that prioritizing the truth becomes the only sensible strategy. While he trades in dubious legality and the uncertainty underpinning the very notion of taking this case to trial, Kore-eda remains staunchly pragmatic in laying out this case as to make sure the “correct” lesson is taken away, and that makes the whole exercise falter significantly.