The Third Day: Jude Law, Naomie Harris explore strange but familiar terrain in HBO’s psychological horror series
The Third Day had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2020).
This article contains no spoilers whatsoever.
To make it to the credits of a horror movie, the people in it must strictly observe a few obvious commandments. Don't look in the basement, don't split up, don't hold seances (even over Zoom calls), etc. In the HBO miniseries The Third Day, Sam (Jude Law) starts off by flouting a big one: Don't go wandering through the woods (Commandment 5). He does, and chances upon a young girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), intent on hanging herself. He rescues her in the nick of time and offers to drive her home, despite her grievance: "They will kill me."
Home happens to be on a secluded island called Osea, which is connected to the British mainland by a causeway. It is the only way in or out, and only accessible for a short period of time every day when the tide recedes. Once they reach Osea, it's red flags galore. There is no cell phone reception (Commandment 12: Don’t opt for a cell phone carrier with network coverage issues). Sam admits to a "never-been here-but-looks-familiar" sensation almost instantly.
Similarly, as a viewer, we're affected by a nagging sensation of this being another folk horror facsimile. The islanders react in contrasting manners to his arrival: the local pub owner Mr. Martin (Paddy Considine) seems suspiciously friendly and offers him a room to stay, while his wife Mrs. Martin (Emily Watson) is more hostile and insists he leave right away. One of the other townsfolk even brings out a shotgun, but the Martins convince Sam he's really a good guy. Before he can break free of the island's mysterious allure, it's high-tide. Deciding to stay overnight, he meets Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American woman researching into the island's history and traditions, and both of them join the rest of the islanders in an ayahuasca-and-alcohol-driven bacchanal.
It’s clear Sam hasn't watched The Wicker Man or Apostle. Once we realise the islanders believe in an archaic form of Christianity, our paranoia barometer beeps continuously to the point of crashing. It feels like the islanders are all in on some collective conspiracy, like Sam is being accepted into their close-knit community to later become the subject of some Burning Man ritual. So, some of the revelations shouldn't come as a surprise, but simply confirm our hunches.
The HBO-Sky co-production comes from the minds of Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly (Utopia), who have decided on an unusual structure for the series. Their story will unfold in three parts: Summer, three chapters which focus on Sam's (mis)adventures in Osea; Winter, three chapters which begin with Helen (Naomie Harris) and her two daughters visiting the same island; and Autumn, a 12-hour live theatrical special that will air between them, and follow half a day in the life of the islanders in one continuous take. That's mighty ambitious, and it will be interesting to see how they pull it off.
So, in Episode 4, the audience surrogate shifts from Law's Sam to Harris's Helen. We jump forward to Winter, where Helen arrives on Osea with her daughters Ellie (Nico Parker) and Talulah (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell), eager to celebrate Ellie's 14th birthday amidst the archaeological wonders of this little island. Like Sam, Helen too ignores all the red flags. Even when they are refused accommodation, find strange vaginal imagery graffitied on the walls, come across a vacant house with odd surgical equipment, and hear screams of a young woman in a deserted construction project. Like Sam, Helen and her girls too stay overnight.
Stranded on the island, it doesn't take long for Sam and Helen to realise these islanders are hiding something. Yet, they are strangely attracted to this sense of mystery. From the first moment, it becomes clear grief over some personal tragedy — a possible deceased child — is slowly eating Sam alive. We seem him put on his earphones, Florence + The Machine's "Dog Days Are Over" kicks in, he lays down a child's T-shirt in a creek and watches it float away like it were a ritual. He is also distressed over a burglary of some £40,000 from his office. Helen too seems to be searching for answers only the island and its inhabitants are privy to. They're both trying to come to terms with some resurfaced demons from their past.
In Sam's story, the nature of reality, and thus the narrative itself, becomes a mystery. Part of its appeal lies in trying to figure out the truth by poking holes in this established reality, and Law holds us precariously on this razor’s edge. In Helen's, the story seems more straightforward: of a mother trying to protect her daughters in this hostile environment. Harris is simply riveting in a performance of great emotional authenticity.
The heart of The Third Day's horror lies in the way it foregrounds its atmosphere, which is practically a character in itself. The show uses the sprawling woods, the isolated island and the mist covering them to create an ominously intoxicating one. These act as parallels to the geography of Sam's own troubled mind. The green of the forest has the opposite effect: it doesn't convey a feeling of serenity, but something sinister hidden in its saturation. The music frays our nerves and doubles up as warnings too. The show layers on the details of its world with low and high voltage creepiness, keeping things ambiguous enough to hold the viewer's attention throughout its six-episode run. Though it feels like a puzzle you have solved before, it's hard not to get drawn in, at least in hope Sam, Helen and her two daughters make it to the credits.
The Third Day begins streaming on Disney+ Hotstar from 14 September.