DIRECTED BY: Marc Munden, Felix Barrett, Philippa Lowthorpe
PLOT: Sam, a bereaved father, saves a suicidal girl and returns her to her home on a remote strip of land off the English coast, only to discover an undercurrent of violence and a weird theology permeating the island. Months later, mother Helen brings her children to the island for a vacation that quickly goes from bad to worse.
COMMENTS: One of the most beloved tropes of horror is the character who goes somewhere—a room, a house, a portal to hell—that no reasonable, clear-thinking person would dare to tread. Part of the joy of the creepy-town variant is that no place is safe; every entrance you make is a bad idea. When Jude Law motors across the rarely appearing causeway that takes him away from the normal, safe world and into the strange island village of Osea, he’s making the classic horror-movie hero journey—and the classic mistake. And when Naomie Harris repeats the trek three episodes later, the audience has to be flat-out screaming “Don’t go in there!” at the screen. (Osea, incidentally, is a real place. Their public relations reps have much to answer for.)
In some respects, The Third Day is two deliberately different shows. (Actually, three. We’ll get to the third one in a moment.) “Summer”, the first three installments starring Law and directed by Marc Munden, mix a persistent sense of dread with a bizarre color palette. The landscape is a perpetual mossy green and dishwater blue, but other colors are riotously bold, as if the very look of the place is conspiring to keep Law’s discombobulated traveler Sam off balance. (Dropping acid, he will learn, does not help.) It is in this first act that we will learn that this community has a very particular theology that is directly related to Sam and the personal tragedy that his thrown his life into chaos. Though there is violence and shocking imagery, the look of the show reflects the town’s view of itself: a paternalistic flock welcoming a lost sheep back into the fold.
Harris’ arrival in “Winter” (with Philippa Lowthorpe now directing) is a significant contrast. Mirroring the weather, the village has turned cold and cracked, with whatever pleasant disposition that might have existed gone and the entire community in a dither over a forthcoming childbirth. The town is more clearly adversarial now, and unlike Sam, Harris’ Helen is not so easily thrown off her game. Of course, the two outsiders’ fates are intertwined, and it will take a fair amount of recriminations and violence to resolve their situation.
The Third Day falls neatly within the popular “outsider goes to strange little northern European village” genre associated with The Wicker Man or Midsommar, and most of the show’s power comes from an ever-present vibe of discomfort seasoned with folk cult horror that intentionally distances the hero and viewer alike. The island’s faith is a bizarre corruption of Christianity peppered with bloody imagery (a crucified Mary, a flayed Jesus). The townspeople are almost universally insular. Ritually dissected creatures litter the island. The show revels in being vague and mysterious, resolutely playing hard-to-get, and the overall mood is effectively creepy. But as a result, it’s hard for our protagonists to do much besides feel lost and confused. The Third Day might have a classier presentation and finer pedigree than, say, Children of the Corn, but they’re cut from the same cloth. The story of The Third Day is undeniably strange, but still familiar to anyone who has come this way before.
But let’s be honest: The six episodes that make up The Third Day’s main storyline are relatively anodyne, with their boring hack elements like dialogue and editing, when compared with the epic stunt at its center. “Autumn” is a 12-hour immersive theater spectacle in which an unbroken single shot takes us through Osea’s grand bacchanal, enacting the brutal rituals that will prove Law’s mettle as a worthy caretaker of the village and engaging in reckless revelry. (Think Berlin Alexanderplaatz as filmed by the crew of Russian Ark.) It’s a massive technical achievement, getting all the people, props and effects in place to hit every milepost (especially the island-spanning camera), but somehow even more impressive is the commitment of creators Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly and theater troupe Punchdrunk to capturing the sheer mundanity of the enterprise. Our opening tracking shot down the gravelly causeway is a full half-hour. Jude Law is put through every manner of abuse: dragging a heavy boat through the town square, being dunked in a barrel of blood, a full hour watching him dig a muddy grave in the midst of stereotypically English fall weather, and all without a scrap of dialogue. Even his lone opportunity for a nap is captured in its entirety. Ultimately, the thing that makes other dramatic depictions of tedium pale by comparison is its warm embrace of the completeness of the experience. One of the jokes of 24, a show that purported to be happening in real time, was that something was always happening. Life, of course, takes time, even at its most exciting. Situations must be set up, people have to get into place. “Autumn” shows it all to you, with no editing to cut through the in-between stuff and no sense of urgency to get through anything, It makes Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles look like The French Connection.
A logical next question is, “Yes, but is it any good?” It’s certainly well-made, expertly crafted with strong performances – especially Law, whose face conveys the lion’s share of the emotional heft of the half-day pagan passion play. It fulfills its core mission: to disturb you, to make you uncomfortable, just like any good horror flick. But if there’s a flaw, it’s that “Autumn” – and The Third Day as a whole – seems to think it’s about something more than it really is. The 12-hour telecast is a great stunt, but it’s still a stunt, as impressive as flagpole sitting or goldfish swallowing. (It is here, Dear Reader, that I confess to making liberal use of the forward button to get through “Autumn” in significantly less than 12 hours.) The show as a whole may think it is dealing with important themes like the insidious nature of religious extremism or mob psychology. But it’s really just a horror show. It plays with your head. You get freaked out. Then you leave the island.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Third Day is perhaps the strangest show on television… Ultimately, The Third Day: Autumn is a remarkable feat of live theatre and television, creating something that feels truly experimental, yet engaging; a mesmeric spectacle comprising surprisingly little, yet one that feels impossible to turn away from” – Ammar Kalia, The Guardian (“Autumn,” contemporaneous)