The new HBO miniseries The Third Day begins with a leisurely, God’s-eye view of a verdant English country road, disturbing music, and the unmistakable sound of Jude Law’s voice in distress saying, “What? Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” It’s early morning, and the character he’s playing, Sam, is already having a terrible day — one that is about to get exponentially worse. His travels then take him to a stream in the woods, where he is just barely in time to rescue a teenage girl named Epona (Jessie Ross) from hanging herself to death. He has crises of his own to solve, but he also has to make sure Epona is OK, which involves driving her to her home on Osea, a secluded island accessible via a narrow stone causeway that is underwater except for a brief period each morning and another at night.
All of this plays out with an appropriate degree of unnerving menace. The colors all pop — the greens of the fields and forest are lush, the blues of the water around the causeway electric — there are frequent jump cuts that add to the sense of disorientation that Sam is feeling, and there’s a compelling intensity to just how distressed and scattered Sam is, even when he’s trying to appear strong and calm for Epona. The visual style, the soundscape, and the performances instantly give The Third Day atmosphere to spare.
That is, unfortunately, all the miniseries has to spare, at least based on the five of six episodes(*) that were available to critics at press time. Divided into two chapters — the three-episode “Summer,” following Sam’s misadventures on Osea; and “Winter,” with Naomie Harris as Helen, a single mom who brings her daughters to the island for a vacation — The Third Day is big on ominous portents and light on almost everything else.
(*) There will be a seventh episode of sorts, titled “Fall,” that will premiere the Saturday between “Summer” and “Winter.” HBO’s press notes describe it as “a theatrical event broadcast online where viewers who seek more will be immersed in the world of The Third Day… Capturing events as live and in one continuous take, this cinematic broadcast will invite viewers deeper into the mysterious and suspenseful world of The Third Day, and blur and distort the lines between what’s real and what’s not.” In other words, an ambitious bonus feature for people who like to obsess over their fan theories.
To be fair, some of those portents are very ominous. As Sam finds himself stuck on Osea for a long weekend — wouldn’t you know it that something is always there to prevent him from getting to the causeway in time? — he is confronted by nightmares both in his sleep and in his waking hours, involving fire, rotted flesh, a big dead bug filled with hundreds of tiny living ones, crowbar-wielding men in masks, and more. All of this looks and/or sounds as unsettling as director Marc Munden wants them to. (Munden helms all the “Summer” chapters, with Benjamin Kračun as his director of photography, while Philippa Lowthorpe and David Chizallet take over their respective roles for “Winter.”) In the second episode, Sam lets American tourist Jess (Katherine Waterston) talk him into taking a psychedelic during the town’s annual religious festival, and as the drugs kick in, we get a stunning tracking shot of Sam seeming to float above the bonfire and the other revelers. And Law is excellent at playing Sam’s confusion, as well as the grief and guilt that make him concerned enough about Epona’s well-being to stay on Osea in the first place.
But the three hours of “Summer” are a lot of time for dire foreshadowing, particularly when the payoff for Sam’s end of the story feels, like so many of the miniseries’ twists, underwhelmingly predictable. I’m admittedly not the target audience for Creepy Town Is Creepy stories (I’ve never seen either version of The Wicker Man, which I gather The Third Day strongly resembles, particularly in Osea’s blend of Christianity and Celtic paganism), but this seems to be a very hollow example of it, especially given the overall length. By the time a new iteration of the plot kicks off in “Winter” — with Harris’ Helen at once warmer and more fragile than Sam, and with Nico Parker(*) and Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell as her daughters — there’s a sense of depressing inevitability at having to go through several of these motions again. The characters — including Paddy Considine and Emily Watson as the local innkeepers, John Dagleish as a violent hood, Mark Lewis Jones as Epona’s angry father, and Paul Kaye as a fellow visitor — never come to life as anything other than automatons necessary to keep the minimalist plot going, and/or to keep Sam and then Helen from figuring out whatever is really going on in Osea.
(*) Parker is the daughter of Westworld star Thandie Newton, but you probably won’t need me to tell you that, since she looks uncannily like a young version of her mom.
There’s a scene early on where Sam tells Jess about the tragedy that has come to define his life, and tries to explain that grief isn’t really how it’s depicted in the movies. This is almost never a useful rhetorical device for screenwriters — Dennis Kelly solos on writing “Summer,” then teams with Kit De Waal and Dean O’Loughlin for “Winter” — but particularly in a show like this that rarely aspires to go deeper than the most superficial take on its plot and characters. It’s possible that the finale, which was still in post-production at press time, will retroactively add depth and value to what’s come before, but the preceding five hours offer few hints of that. It’s a puzzle show, buoyed by some good acting and cinematography, but there’s not much there there.
“This feels familiar,” Sam observes as he first drives through Osea. You’ll have a similar feeling that early in The Third Day, and then the show will keep going, and going.
The Third Day premieres September 14th on HBO.