It was probably time for Hirokazu Kore-eda to take a break from the tender seriocomedies about parents and children that have occupied his last decade, given that 2016’s “After the Storm” was a good film — yet also the least of his efforts in that terrain. Still, even those who pine for the chillier tenor and themes of earlier features (like “Nobody Knows,” “Distance” and “After Life”) are likely to greet “The Third Murder” with mixed emotions. This entirely dialogue-driven drama focuses on a mid-career lawyer whose jaded professionalism is shaken when he takes on a client charged with homicide but whose story seems to change with every telling.
Trouble is, that confessional “truth” changes so many times we cease to care what it might turn out to be — and in any case, Kore-eda leaves “whodunit” (let alone why) unanswered here. Ambiguity can be powerful in a mystery, yet “Murder’s” somewhat ponderously literal-minded attention to legal procedure makes that aspect less potent in itself, while the limited psychological insights we get aren’t terribly interesting. Compelling enough while you’re watching it, frustrating then forgettable once it ends, this is a work that wouldn’t command much attention if it came from any other director. Coming from this one, it mostly intrigues as an unexpected if not terribly rewarding change of pace.
After a brief, discreet opening glimpse of the crime in question — one repeated later with key variations, none of which may reflect whatever “really” happened — we meet defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), who’s unhappy to be dragged by his older law-practice partner Settsu (Kotaro Yoshida) into a case well in progress. The reason is that older factory worker Misumi (Koji Yakusho) is proving a particularly problematic client: Though he’s confessed to the police, he keeps changing his account of the circumstances that led to his killing the boss who’d fired him for theft.
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Misumi certainly seems guilty, having already served one long prison sentence for two long-ago murders, and being in need of money to cover purported gambling debts. Yet he exasperates his counsel by “forgetting” or contradicting what he’s said, then making confounding new claims. Is he simply a dim bulb who can’t keep his own story straight? Is he deliberately toying with them out of sheer maliciousness? Or is he trying to hide someone else’s guilt?
Though Shigemori jadedly professes not to care what the actual truth is — the only important thing, he tells a younger colleague, is what works as legal strategy — he nonetheless finds himself in pursuit of just that. His inquiries lead him to try tracking down Misumi’s long-estranged daughter, as well as interviewing the victim’s wife and child. But eventually it appears that the latter two may have, for separate reasons, been involved in the murder. Then there’s the matter of worker exploitation and corrupt business practices at the factory. All the while, with the death penalty hanging in the balance, Misumi keeps revising his narrative, seeming a hapless ne’er-do-well one minute and a Machiavellian schemer the next.
The intricate nature of Kore-eda’s script pulls one along to a considerable degree — there’s hardly 30 seconds here that can be safely ignored without missing some potentially significant new plot wrinkle. But there’s also a dull monotony to a film so entirely driven by verbal testimony, even if the writer-director manages to keep us out of the courtroom proper for the majority of “Murder.” Still, nearly everything here is a matter of interview (with Misumi in prison and witnesses elsewhere) or discussion between lawyers, with flashbacks, dream sequences, etc., providing infrequent and somewhat labored diversion.
Kore-eda has said his primary intent was to “depict the job of a lawyer properly.” But the persnickety attention expended on that is unlikely to gratify viewers not acquainted with the specifics of the Japanese legal and judicial systems. And by using a murder mystery as plot hook, the film inevitably leads us to expect a conventional resolution whose absence irks in this very procedural, somewhat stylistically drab context.
There emerges an attempt at a more accessibly human emotional thread involving paternal guilt: Not only does Misumi lament being a bad/absent father, but divorced Shigemori neglects his own troubled daughter, and the murdered boss’s teenage offspring (Suzu Hirose) turns out to be another kind of victim whose relationship with the killer has its own mysteries. But these elements end up seeming a desultory rehash of Kore-eda’s usual thematic focus on parent-child dysfunction.
Though very well acted by an impressive cast, “The Third Murder” is in the final analysis neither fish nor fowl — a dense puzzle without solution that doesn’t quite make a virtue of being an enigma. It’s hard to imagine Kore-eda making a flat-out abysmal failure, and this certainly isn’t that. But he’s clearly expended a great deal of thought on a project that ultimately feels like an arid experiment, one that leaves little lasting impression as drama, art or intellectual inquiry.