Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant, deliberate legal drama “The Third Murder” presents itself not as a whodunit, but a whydunit. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant, deliberate legal drama “The Third Murder” presents itself not as a whodunit, but a whydunit. We see, in its opening minutes, a murder taking place — a man savagely attacks another on a quiet night near a riverbed, as city lights serenely twinkle in the distance – and we see the murderer’s face in closeup, as he wipes blood from his cheek. He is Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a factory worker who previously served time for murder years ago, and he freely admits to the crime; all his well-known lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) hopes to do is get the punishment down from the death penalty to life in prison.

And then … well, murder is endlessly fascinating, as the vast crime-fiction industry would indicate, and this one is no different. Was the dead man’s wife — who speaks in a voice so tiny she seems barely present — complicit in the crime? Was the murderer committing a crime of passion, or work for hire? Or was there someone else wiping blood from a cheek that night — someone whose involvement Misumi might want to cover up?

Kore-eda, a master filmmaker in his native Japan, stakes out some unusual territory here; his films are typically gentle tales of extended families (“Our Little Sister,” “After the Storm,” “Nobody Knows”), often devastating in their beauty. In “The Third Murder,” the air is colder, as are the emotions. But this tale, unexpectedly emerging as a story of fathers and daughters, is as riveting as any of his softer films, and its photography is a pleasure. Watch, especially, in the electric scenes between Misumi and Shigemori in the prison’s interview room; in the glass, each face is faintly reflected on top of the other’s, like two lives overlapping into one.

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★★★½ “The Third Murder,” with Masaharu Fukuyama, Koji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. 124 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Japanese with English subtitles.  Opens Aug. 24 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.