Just stay home.
Time and again in 2020, we’ve seen movies about folks who embark on a trip to a remote and unique getaway — only to have their lives turned upside down in often violent fashion shortly after their arrival. From “Fantasy Island” to “Relic” to “Four Kids and It,” from “You Should Have Left” to “The Rental” to “Murder in the Woods,” it keeps on happening — and it happens again, twice, in the HBO limited series “The Third Day,” a grisly, bone-cracking, blood-spattered horror thriller set on a holiday resort off the Essex coast known as Osea. (A more fitting name for this place would be “Nightmare Island.”)
The six-part series (I was given access to the first five episodes) is divided into equal halves. In the first three segments, Jude Law — who it seems never stops working and never fails to deliver strong, committed work — plays Sam, who rescues a girl named Epona (Jessie Ross) from an attempted suicide and takes her to her home on the mysterious island of Osea, which feels a lot more like “Midsommar” than Grand Cayman but is nevertheless a tourist attraction, thanks to its centuries of sacred traditions and its annual festival, featuring music and fireworks and re-enactments of ancient rituals. In the second half of the series, Naomie Harris delivers her typically fine work as a mother who takes her two daughters to the island on a whim to celebrate her oldest girl’s birthday.
Even the mere act of driving to Osea is a harbinger of the struggles to come. You have to navigate a narrow causeway winding like a snake through the choppy waters — and when the tide rises, the causeway is swallowed by the sea. If you’re stuck on the island and desperate to leave, well, you’re going to have to wait it out until the tide recedes and the causeway reappears. Fun for the whole family!
By the time Sam has returned Epona home, the causeway has closed, so he accepts an invitation from pub owners Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson) to stay in the guest room upstairs. Apparently the Martins forgot the room was already booked to Katherine Waterston’s Jess, who makes an annual pilgrimage to Osea at festival time to party with villagers and embrace their bizarre rituals, which are filled with religious symbolism and involve prancing about in giant animal heads, and that’s just the start of it. (“The Third Day” is big on jarring us with nauseating imagery of exposed entrails and skeletal remains and hordes of orange insects.) There’s an unsettling creepiness about virtually every villager save Epona; even Sam’s new friend, the sunny and lovely Jess, seems to be harboring secrets. As Sam finds himself drawn to the island in inexplicable ways while finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from hallucinatory fantasy, “The Third Day” feels more than a little reminiscent of the original “Wicker Man” and Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”
Cut to Episode 4, with Sam’s story unresolved but set aside, at least for now, as Naomie Harris’ Helen arrives on the island with daughters Tallulah (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell) and Ellie (Nico Parker), and finds it in a “Walking Dead” state of disrepair, from the abandoned buildings to the disturbing graffiti everywhere to the suspicious behavior of the Martins and virtually every other villager they encounter. But unlike Sam, Helen isn’t here by accident; she’s pursuing an agenda that goes beyond the cover story about celebrating her daughter’s birthday. Helen isn’t leaving this island until she gets some answers.
The pub-owning Martins aren’t the only characters from the first half of the “Third Day” who resurface in part two. When we see Jess, it’s immediately obvious she’s experienced some major changes in her life since last we left her. The more we learn of Jess’ back story, the more ... well, wow. I’ll leave it at that. Dramatic reveals notwithstanding, the second segment of “Third Day” doesn’t have the same level of manic, violent, urgent madness as the first, but thanks in large part to Harris’ riveting work as a fiercely protective mother not to be trifled with, it’s just as involving. Episode 5 ends on a note that promises many of the major mysteries on Osea will be solved in the finale. Can’t wait.