The Third Murder opens with the visceral shot of a burning body. Unfortunately, what follows over the course of the next two hours is much less interesting.

Koji Yakusho stars as Misumi, a previously convicted criminal who does not contest his involvement in the titular murder. However, as his legal team soon discovers, Misumi is simultaneously too compliant and wholly unreliable. Each time they visit prison to question him, his story shifts slightly. Something is clearly amiss, but with a suspect clearly pleading guilty few are willing to dig deeper. When the little inconsistencies begin to add up to something too great to ignore, the story veers off into unexpected territory, involving both Misumi and the dead man’s families.

As much as The Third Murder wants to be a slow burning, hard-boiled crime drama about human nature, the failings of the criminal justice system, and unknowable truths, its austerity – bordering on sterility – causes it to fall short. One expects more from writer/director and Cannes darling Hirokazu Koreeda, who won the top prize at this year’s festival for Shoplifters. He’s best known for his intimate portraits of everyday life, such as his 2004 film Nobody Knows, and perhaps that’s why The Third Murder falls flat. Lacking the emotional center and delicate sentimentality of his previous works, Koreeda’s latest movie feels somber and empty.

Even Yakusho, a veteran actor, can’t make his vaguely psychopathic character stir up much more in the audience than a bland curiosity. The trio of lawyers that comprise his defense are likewise unmemorable, although their moral conflict does give the plot some tension, and gives off the faintest whiff of social commentary.

The few female characters in the story are secondary, and seemingly exist only to accentuate the struggles of their male counterparts. Misumi’s adult daughter is conspicuous by her absence; try as they might the lawyers are unable to locate her. The deceased man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), shares a special bond with Misumi (and yes, by his own account he killed her father). Meanwhile the lead lawyer on the case, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), grapples with his fraught relationship with his own daughter in the aftermath of his divorce. Fatherhood, or rather its failings, becomes its own theme.

Koreeda has already established himself as a talented and nuanced director; all those except the most diehard fans may be better off holding out until Shoplifters’ international release.

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