Movie Review: The Third Murder (2017)
I say “spoilers” but, really, how can I spoil what I can’t fathom? There’s nothing to spoil here because there are so few answers. It’s legal procedural as M.C. Escher painting. Every step seems to lead us somewhere, but, scratching our heads, perplexed, we simply wind up right back where we started.
The movie opens with a murder. In the grassy fields near a river, Misumi (Koji Yakusho) takes a wrench and beats in the head of his former factory boss. The blood splatters Misumi’s cheek; then he splatters the corpse with gasoline and sets it aflame. Later, he confesses to the crime. Open and shut? Seemingly. But we’re two minutes in. As the movie progresses, we wonder if what we’ve watched is a thing that even happened.
Do the right thing
Our protagonist, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), is brought in by Misumi’s first attorney to help with the case. He’s the son of a judge—the same judge who 30 years earlier was lenient with Misumi during his first murder trial—and he’s, you know, doing lawyerly things. He’s looking for ways to get his client off or his sentence reduced. He wants to avoid the death penalty.
Apparently this was the impetus for the film. Here’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, and ... I asked him “What was it that he did?” and he said, “We’re there to make adjustments to the conflict interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it.
You could argue it’s the difference between the movie version of the world and the reality, which is why Kore-eda decided to make a movie that dealt with that reality. Or, really, that began with that reality—using the best facts in your client’s best interests—and then ... not. Here’s what he asked himself:
“Okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”
It takes us a while to get there. The movie is masterfully atmospheric. You know how a film clings to you afterwards? Walking home, every sentence my wife said seemed to float in the air, pulsating with potential meaning, until disappating and leaving nothing behind; just a residue of meaninglessness. That’s what much of the dialogue, much of the movie, felt like to me.
Is Misumi crazy or wise? Is he malicious or protective? Did he kill the factory boss because he had debt, because he was fired, because the boss’ wife asked him to, because the boss’ daughter, Sakie (Suzie Hirose), wanted him to?
At one point, Misumi seems to commune with, and read the mind of, his attorney after the two hold up hands against the plastic partition separating them. So is he an empath? Later, Sakie implies something similar. She says Misumi sensed she wanted her father dead—since he was molesting her—and that’s why he killed him. And yet we hear nothing more of his empathic abilities. They‘re raised to be forgotten.
Or how about the thing with the birds? If he didn’t kill the factory boss, then why mercy-kill his own birds beforehand while setting one free? Why bury them in the backyard beneath a cross of stones? And what does it mean that the burned body at the crime scene also formed a neat, perfect cross? Or that the movie ends with Shigemori standing at a literal crossroads?
My wife thought Misumi hadn’t committed the murder. She felt he was simply covering for Sakie. That’s why he kept changing his story and motives: to protect her. Sure, I said. Except 30 years earlier, he’d committed another murder in another city, and the prosecutor there said he kept changing his story, too. Changing the story to protect Sakie can’t be the answer because it’s what he’s always done. We’ve just gone in circles. We’re back on M.C. Escher’s steps.
The truth will not out
To be honest, I can't even pinpoint what the title refers to. The earlier murder was a two-fer, so is the factory boss the third? Or is Misumi himself the third murder? He’s an innocent man doomed to be executed by the state, which isn’t interested in a search for truth.
I admit I liked “The Third Murder." From the beginning, I felt in the hands of a master. What’s fascinating, too, is that Kore-eda seems to have upended his original purpose. Disappointed by the reality of the Japanese legal system, he wanted to make a movie about a lawyer who did search for the truth, who was what we envisioned a lawyer to be. And what happened? His client got screwed and the truth wasn’t outed. Indeed, the more he searched for the truth, the further it got from him. And from us.