A harsh and largely unwelcome change of pace from Japan’s greatest living humanist filmmaker, “The Third Murder” finds Hirokazu Kore-eda abandoning the warmth of his recent family dramas (“Still Walking,” “After the Storm”) in favor of an ice-cold legal thriller that pedagogically dismantles the death penalty. It begins in a cold ditch on a dark night, as a man named Misumi (the great Kôji Yakusho) conks his boss on the back of the head and lights his body on fire. The killer is all too happy to confess that he committed the crime, but when he meets his defense team — a scraggly trio led by a suave lawyer named Shigemori (“Like Father, Like Son” actor Masaharu Fukuyama) — he starts to change his story.
Shigemori is perfectly fine with that; it’s his job to go with whatever version of the truth might spare his client the death penalty. However, it isn’t long before the hardline attorney is forced to question if Misumi actually committed a crime at all. By the time the film lumbers into its lugubrious second half, Kore-eda is much less concerned with Misumi’s guilt than he is the nature of guilt itself, and how fallibly we decide to determine it. His conclusions are characteristically both compassionate and ambiguous, but the process of reaching them is far too labored for these thoughts to sink as deeply as they should, or as they have in so much of his previous work.
The vast majority of “The Third Murder” is set in prison, as Misumi and his counsel sit on either side of a thick plexiglass divider and speak to each other through the holes. These long, talky scenes are quietly riveting in large part because Kore-eda came out of the womb knowing how to set up and sell a dramatic beat. There’s a good reason why all of his films, even the rare ones that don’t completely work, are patient but never boring. It doesn’t hurt that Yakusho is one of the world’s most absorbing actors, mesmerizing here as an elusive killer who behaves like an empty vessel in order to disguise what he knows in favor of foregrounding what he believes.
Kore-eda shoots Misumi for his reflection, lighting him so that his image is superimposed over that of Shigemori and the other lawyers who sit across the barrier. “There’s a huge gap between those who kill and those who don’t,” one lawyer says; the camera suggests otherwise, blurring the lines between the righteous and the unjust. Everyone is guilty of something, Kore-eda argues ad nauseum. But if his undying empathy is always a breath of fresh air — especially when it’s tested — his generous philosophy is didactic in “The Third Murder,” robbing his ideas of their power.
Take, for instance, Shigemori’s delinquent teenage daughter, who only exists to further prove her father’s fallibility and establish a deeper connection between he and Misumi, who may have had a surprisingly paternal relationship of his own with the victim’s 14-year-old girl (Kore-eda veteran Hirose Suzu). Is it possible, that by killing her dad, Misumi was doing the kid a favor?
“The Third Murder” poses a battery of intriguing rhetorical questions, which the characters often ask aloud and allow to hang in the air for a half-second too long. Why does the law consider it worse if you kill for money than if you kill for revenge? Is ignoring a crime a crime unto itself? Is it at all relevant that Misumi killed two people in Hokkaido in 1986 (this is the third murder, after all), or did Kore-eda just want an excuse to interject a lyrical, snowbound interlude into a musty murder mystery?
It would be against Kore-eda’s nature to answer any of these questions — a certain degree of moral ambiguity is fundamental to the warmth of his work — but he’s never made anything so cold. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it becomes one because the filmmaker is uncharacteristically incurious about parsing the story’s major themes. As the movie stumbles from the certainty with which it started and leads Shigemori toward a very literal crossroads, it grows more frustrating (and more ironic) that this should be the first Kore-eda feature not to thoroughly investigate itself.
“The Third Murder” insists that humans can’t judge one another, and that capital punishment is an inherently flawed practice. It tells us that class can tip the scales of justice at birth, and that the privileged need to ignore a whole lot of grim things in order to go about their business. And while this critic happens to agree with Kore-eda on all of those points, his latest movie flatters that perspective rather than testing it. It’s beautifully acted and trembles with truth, but it never gives us enough information to arrive at those conclusions on her own or deepen our belief in them. Even as Misumi inches toward the gallows, Kore-eda never gives us enough rope to hang ourselves.
“The Third Murder” had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.