A courtroom drama in which our perceptions of truth, justice and judgement are investigated and examined more than the trial it presents.

My favourite line in “The Third Murder” occurs around a dinner table when one of the characters asks how the justice system can be considered fair if there can be two different punishments for the same crime because their motivation is different. I can imagine that scene happening in writer/producer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s home and that line being the entire inspiration for the film that surrounds it. “The Third Murder” is definitely not the type of courtroom drama we are accustomed to seeing, where the climax hinges on an innocent or guilty verdict. Here, the outcome gets determined long before the movie even begins and we are left to decide on our own what the truth was or if justice was done.

What we are presented with instead, is an examination of truth, justice and the amount of responsibility each person has in contributing to what we collectively call the ‘truth’. Another line in “The Third Murder” that recurs and is used in different contexts is the phrase “pretend not to see”; which is used by one character who says she is tired of living that way and by the accused using it to challenge his lawyer’s preconceptions. There is certainly a subtext throughout the movie that the audience is guilty of this as well, even though Kore-eda sets up our belief of what occurred in the opening scene, making us believe one version and then making us question what we saw through the rest of the film. The irony of society saying that we seek the truth when the truth is malleable and able to be manipulated is a worthwhile question “The Third Murder” raises, even if the way it is done comes across a bit heavy-handed at times.

The film begins as we witness factory worker Misumi killing his boss and burning the body in an isolate and darkened river valley. Misumi confesses to the authorities, but when he keeps changing his story, another high-powered lawyer, Shigemori, is brought in by the defense to argue for a reduced sentence. However, over the course of his investigation, Shigemori questions whether anything he has discovered can be considered truthful.

Kore-eda’s humanistic approach to the subject matter is his greatest success with this film. The low-key interactions and one-on-one conversations are a welcome change from the standard crime procedural, where for instance, CSI will have 150 paid officers roaming the desert for a tiny piece of evidence. Here, the lawyers argue over whether they will get reimbursed for taking a flight to visit one character witness. There are debates over how not enforcing the death penalty at one time led to another victim. Whether people are defined by nature or their circumstances, and more importantly, who has the right to judge that person, comes up more than once. People discuss how to state something so that it benefits their legal strategy, not whether saying so is the ‘truth’. These philosophical questions about justice have the dual effect of raising “The Third Murder” above your typical court drama but also slows down the plot threads to the point where the court case feels inconsequential, largely lacking any narrative substance.

Having said that, I also think that was entirely intentional on Kore-eda’s part. This movie is filled with so much visual, verbal and narrative symbolism that every scene means something, even if that meaning is making the audience question what they have seen or heard previously. There is even a pre-trial scene with the lawyers introducing the charges and their evidence where an email is labelled inconsequential so that it doesn’t matter whether or not it is admitted. Later, over discussion of a mistrial one of the tribunal judges indicates that a new trial wouldn’t make a difference because he had already made his decision. The struggle to want our actions to have meaning is also woven into the fabric of “The Third Murder”. However, the intensity that comes across during the prison interview scenes only makes you realize that intensity is generally missing from the court scenes.

Motivation is the other strong undercurrent in “The Third Murder”. During those Hannibal Lecter-like scenes between Misumi and Shigemori, Misumi does everything from suggesting he doesn’t remember what he said previously, to describing how he killed his pet parakeets while letting one go, to telling Shigemori that he is expecting too much foresight from a ‘murderer like him’. We even learn that Misumi acted much the same way during his previous murder trial of killing two men (hence the ‘Third Murder’ of the title), making us question as to whether this is just the type of person he is or whether there was a hidden motive behind accepting that conviction as well. Much like our first film of the season, “The Children Act”, the question of who is objectively capable of judging another person is very much at play here as well.
Despite some slow moving parts and a underwhelming court case, “The Third Murder” is definitely a film worth watching and discussing its exploration of truth, justice, and perception. Much like Shigemori realizing his role in everything by wiping imaginary blood off his cheek on the steps of the courthouse, and his literal standing at a crossroads in the final shot, “The Third Murder” makes the audience analyze if our own assumptions and thoughts that we harbour are the absolute truth. Ultimately, leaving us to question our own involvement in how we share or hide the truth from others and what path we choose to take – whether we like it or not.

-Jason Hlady

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