Sundance 2021: On the Count of Three – Movie Review

On the Count of Three, a desperation filled buddy comedy that serves as the directorial debut of stand-up comedian Jerrod Carmichael, opens with two lifelong friends, Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), who are both lost and ready to end it. As they stand behind a strip club in an overcast morning pointing guns at each other, they’ve decided to take part in a double-suicide pact. That might sound like a pat, wannabe edgy way to begin a death-obsessed buddy comedy, but the chemistry and love between these two friends is immediately felt, carrying a honesty about facing their uncertain futures which veers it onto more sturdy grounds.

And such honesty carries over to the film’s calibration of its tone: Which is mix of bleak and manic humor, yet having some sensitivity through all of it. Working from a script by his oft-collaborators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Carmichael quickly flashes back a few hours. From that cold open, he unfolds a fun story that thrives on the rough contradictions behind this connected friendship. A tiny film that carries daring big swings, On the Count of Three mines plenty of humor from the despair and even some pathos from a Papa Roach song. Such despair is seen early on, as we find Kevin involuntarily committed in a mental health facility at the chronological start of this story, just a few days removed from his most recent suicide attempt. And it’s fair to say that he’s nowhere close to being pleased with his treatment: “If any of you knew how to help me by now you would have fucking done it!” he shouts.

Val doesn’t share the same grim history of childhood molestation like Kevin, but he’s got plenty of his own demons to deal with, and he seems even more committed to killing himself than his buddy does. His gut reaction to getting a promotion at his job at a mulch facility is to hang himself by his belt in the office bathroom. Yet that plan is abandoned for a better one: Val quickly breaks Kevin out of the clinic for a proper goodbye. They decide to spend one last day together, finishing some tasks that hang in the roots of their inner demons and then pull the triggers on each other. But what they guys might think as some nihilistic take on The Bucket List, soon turns into a lark of a misadventure, as Kevin and Val find that the promise of a mutual suicide pact has a funny way of inspiring people. It’s not exactly subtle, but no one is really going to spend your last day being subtle.

Without losing sight of its stakes, On the Count of Three is pretty funny. Abbott and Carmichael love their characters as much as their characters love each other. Kevin and Val may be troubled and self-destructive but they’re not dumb, and the actors never play down to these guys in order to find the contagious joy in breaking all the rules of life they’ve always been conditioned to follow (specifically, that you need to keep living it). That’s where most of the laughs come from, as Kevin’s plan to murder the doctor who molested him as a child finds him puzzling over the sheer ridiculousness and contradictions that can come with gun possession.

As shown, Carmichael doesn’t shy away from the messiness of these events. He’s not the most assured filmmaker, but his assurance does grow as the movie widens its scope into car chases and standoffs. But On the Count of Three works the audacities decently well, even as things can feel rushed in its eighty-four minute runtime. Like a game of Russian roulette, this is a movie that would have seemed embarrassingly goofy if things had gone wrong. It’s a tightrope walk of a movie that dances around the edge of an open wound from start to finish as it risks making light of the heaviest of subjects. Early on Val speaks on the nature of quitting: “When you’re a kid they tell you the worst thing in life is to be a quitter. Why? Quitting’s amazing. It just means you get to stop doing something you hate.” No matter how bleak On the Count of Three may seem, it can be touching and exciting to see these two friends find the kind of happiness that’s worth dying for. On the Count of Three ultimately benefits from the winning chemistry between Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott, balancing this hurried morbid comedy of friendship between the tragic and the comic.

Grade: B

On the Count of Three premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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