The Third Murder (2017) Movie Review: An Ambivalent Legal Thriller
The concept of complete objectivity encompassing truth within the legal system is, quite ironically, highly subjective. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder delves heavily into exploring the complexities surrounding truth and objectivity throughout the foundations of a seemingly open and shut court case, where the ever-shifting application of narrative changes the way we view the film’s characters and their blurring interpretative stances on reality versus fantasy.
The film opens with the brutal murder of a factory boss by the hands of one his employees, Misumi (Koji Takusho), recently released from prison for a crime that took place years before. Defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is provided the case due to Misumi’s reluctance to settle on an exact recollection of what occurred on the fateful day of the murder. Shigemori continually questions Misumi’s motive behind the killing, with the murdered victims’ daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose) entering into the picture as a potential key element in resolving the mystery behind the crime, with Shigemori’s personal life swaying his interpretation of events.
While the film’s narrative initially presents itself as a rather conventional take on the murder mystery genre, Kore-eda’s direction slowly envelops into a complicated and deceptive framework that slowly focuses and deconstructs Shigemori’s understanding of truth as an attorney attempting to defend a man accused of a heinous crime. The intimate moments from both Shigemori’s personal, familial manners and his intense interactions with Misumi in prison has him doubting his theories surrounding the offense, and where we see his increasingly confused psychological state of mind. Confessions, evidence, and motives are always in motion, wherein the proof of Misumi’s previous crimes committed years prior are brought into question as well.
The mysterious enigma of Misumi can be interpreted as a metaphorical stance on the complicated immensity of seeking the ultimate truth, perhaps seen more so as an indictment of the criminal justice system itself. Takusho portrays the ambiguous nature of Misumi exceptionally well, conveying a man that is wrought with self-doubt but also oddly connected to a sense of self-defined justice that burgeons on the realm of the supernatural. His understanding and manipulatory measures of the justice system are presented, providing social commentary on that very system as testimonies and evidence are substantially obscured by both the prosecution and defense to communicate their version of events, with the loss of what may have happened occurring through that deliberate process. By the film’s end, we see two very different men before us in both Misumi and Shigemori, with one willing to manipulate the legal parameters for their bidding as quickly as the other.
Where the film slightly falters is its excessive need to showcase this ambivalence regarding Misumi’s story, with the narrative moving back and forth to confirm the viability of his words. While we understand that it is a practical concern for any legal proceeding to get to the truth of the matter, the film focuses extensively on Shigemori’s psychological reconditioning as an attorney, and we also understand early on as an audience that there is more Misumi’s story than he is telling. By the film’s conclusive, we are fully invested in the notion that what Misumi is not entirely telling the truth, which is not surprising - he is the one in prison. Kore-eda could have easily focused more on the tension between Misumi and Shigemori, which is where the narrative truly distinguishes itself from the tropes of the genre.
What the film does succeed in is thrusting us into a world where the proposed “truth” is never what it seems to be and where doubt lingers ever so steadily as a man’s life hangs in the balance. While Shigemori’s stern willingness and intent to uncover the truth is slowly replaced by a shroud of obscurity consuming truth itself, Kore-eda is keen on showcasing how seeking objective truth is continuously out of grasp, even for the most determined individuals. The Third Murder is a film that does not even attempt to answer what it initially set out to do, but then again, perhaps that was never the point.