This review contains spoilers.
The first time I watched The Third Murder (2017), a Japanese legal drama written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, I considered it a failure, a routine genre exercise by a filmmaker capable of much more. Kore-eda's best films (Nobody Knows; Still Walking; Like Father, Like Son) unfold like great novels, patiently spending time with the characters until the accumulation of detail becomes profound. By contrast, The Third Murder felt like high-toned paperback fiction; the film hinges on a few big plot twists that drastically alter one's perception of certain characters all at once. But when I watched it again, Kore-eda's surprises seemed less like a screenwriter's tricks than Dostoevskian revelations deepening everything that came before. Scenes that are tedious or familiar on first viewing become absorbing on the second, when you focus on small details that point to the characters' true selves. In fact I can't write about The Third Murder without getting into the plot twists, so if you want to see it, read this piece later.
The film begins with a scene of random murder. A man follows another man through an industrial landscape, beats him to death with a wrench, then burns the victim's corpse. Kore-eda cuts between plainspoken close-ups and dispassionate wide-shots, announcing a nonjudgmental, matter-of-fact perspective. It's an inspired way to set the stage for The Third Murder's protagonist, Shigemori (Masharu Fukuyama), the lawyer who will defend the murderer, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho). From the start Shigemori comes across as an idealist who lives to help others. He eagerly joins a colleague in defending Misumi, even though the latter has already confessed to the crime. Shigemori's father, a liberal judge, once sentenced Misumi to 30 years in prison rather than give him the death penalty. The judge's son, acting on an inherited sense of responsibility to the man, goes about investigating Misumi's history as though he were innocent.
The great revelation of The Third Murder is that Misumi believes in justice as deeply as his lawyer does. In the third act, Shigemori discovers that—contrary to the opening sequence—Misumi didn't really commit the murder but rather took the blame for the victim's teenage daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), who's been sexually abused by her father and in whom Misumi has taken a protective interest. Kore-eda presents this revelation as matter-of-factly as he does the opening murder, and it doesn't come off as prurient. More importantly, it unifies Kore-eda's psychological portraits of Shigemori and Misumi. The attorney may appear onscreen much more than his client, but one gets to know Misumi just as deeply from what other people say about him. As Misumi, Yakusho gives an understated performance that subtly reflects the insights one gleans about the character from the testimonies of others; one of the pleasures of watching the film a second time is seeing how, in the early scenes, Yakusho provides clues to later revelations.
The convict and the lawyer are quite similar. Shigemori believes so deeply in the law that he's sacrificed his life for it—early in the film Kore-eda reveals that the attorney's wife divorced him and that his neglected 14-year-old daughter is becoming a delinquent. Shigemori realizes that he's failed as a family man but makes little attempt to change his personal life; he's too committed to the cause of justice. Misumi has also sacrificed much of his life to do what he believes is right. In the middle of The Third Murder, Shigemori travels to the convict's hometown in Hokkaido to persuade Misumi's estranged daughter to serve as a character witness, and learns from the townspeople that Misumi went to jail the first time because he murdered two local gangsters who'd been preying on the community. By confessing to the murder Sakie has committed, Misumi accepts that, as a repeat offender, he may receive the death penalty, but he considers Sakie's happiness worth dying for. Misumi shows that he's made peace with his fate in the early scenes, when he answers his lawyers' questions by telling them what he thinks they want to hear. He doesn't care about telling the truth or improving their defense, since he's already achieved his mission.
Kore-eda encourages contemplation through patient long takes, a plaintive minimalist piano score, and the way he parcels out information. Often the director presents new information about characters twice—first, when the character or someone speaking about him volunteers the information, then when the lawyers meet to discuss it. This narrative strategy can make the movie feel twice as long as it really is (which is why I was a little bored on first viewing), but it fosters a sense of deliberation—one approaches Kore-eda's psychological revelations as if they were pieces of evidence, considering them from multiple angles and reflecting on how they contribute to the overall characterizations. This legalistic approach to storytelling reminded me of such classics as Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing (1988), which is to say that The Third Murder merits comparison with the finest films on the subject of justice. v