THE THIRD MURDER is a gentle movie about killing. While that may sound contradictory, it isn't in the hands of Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda, one of our most humane filmmakers.

The movie begins with the brutal murder, robbery and immolation of a factory manager. The accused killer Misumi (Koji Yakusho) immediately confesses. His lawyers, led by Shigamuri (Masaharu Fukuyama) try to convince him to at least not to confess to premeditated robbery (Japanese law mandates the Death Penalty for Murder in those cases). After several machinations, the case goes to trial.

That is the 'plot' of the movie, but, it's not what Koreeda (who also wrote and edited the picture) intends the movie to be about. Instead, Koreeda explores what are the psychological and practical reasons for murder. Whether murder is ever justified. And, even whether a murderer like Misumi has value as a human being. For the lawyer, it isn't about 'the law' or even representing his client, as much as the movie delves into whether the truth matters as all to his defense work - or, even if it's important that he knows for certain his client's guilt or innocence (there's a marvelous overhead shot of Shigamuri that concisely symbolizes the various threads his character goes through). While THIRD MURDER isn't as plot and twist driven as a John Grisham novel, neither is it simply a philosophical art-house film. There are plenty of angles and turns in story (no spoilers here). The cat & mouse between the accused and even his own lawyers is fascinatingly drawn. Fukyama and Yakusho (who won the Japanese 'Oscar'*) deliver fine performances. The photography and editing in their scenes together (especially when they at head to head through a prison glass window) are a master class in mounting tension.

THIRD MURDER never takes the easy way out. There is no 'Perry Mason' moment where it all clicks into place. One has to be an active participant in unlocking the story's mysteries and meanings. Koreeda isn't a showy filmmaker (OUR LITTLE SISTER, Cannes Palme D'or winner SHOPLIFTERS), but he uses the camera, sound, editing and music to create an almost hypnotic air. About half-way through there's an amazing sequence which begins as a flashback and then melds into another character's projection -- seamlessly. THIRD MURDER is another exemplary entry in Koreeda's filmography. Also, seamlessly.

* THIRD MURDER won 6 Japanese 'Oscars' including Best Picture, Screenplay and Director (Koreeda winning three overall including Editing).

Interestingly, the movie is being relegated to a cursory release for a great Director like Koreeda. The reviews here have been very good, but not as extraordinary as a number of his earlier pictures have earned, six Japanese Oscars or not. Maybe it can be chalked up to cultural differences? The deliberate pace and odd rhythms might repay repeated viewings. It's almost as if they are using THIRD MURDER as an 'appetizer' for Koreeda's "real 2018" release, the Cannes Palme D'Or winner, SHOPLIFTERS. For myself, SHOPLIFTERS is going have be truly exceptional to surpass, or even equal, THIRD MURDER in my book.