On the Count of Three
Jerrod Carmichael makes his feature directorial debut with this raw and soulful dark comedy about two friends with a suicide pact.
September 29, 2022
What happens outside an upstate New York strip club at 10am on an ordinary weekday? Nothing — nothing good, or that anyone pays attention to, at least — deduces the unhappy Val (Jerrod Carmichael, Rothaniel) in On the Count of Three. So, he's hatched a plan: with his lifelong best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott, The Forgiven), they'll carry out a suicide pact, with that empty car park as their final earthly destination. Under the harsh morning light and against a drably grey sky, Carmichael's feature directorial debut initially meets its central duo standing in that exact spot, guns pointed at each other's heads and pulling the trigger mere moments away. Yes, they start counting. Yes, exhaustion and desperation beam from their eyes. No, this thorny yet soulful film isn't over and done with then and there.
There are many ways to experience weariness, frustration, malaise and despair, and to convey them — and On the Count of Three surveys plenty, as an unflinchingly black comedy about two lifelong best friends deciding to end it all should. Those dispiriting feelings can weigh you down, making every second of every day an effort. They can fester, agitate, linger and percolate, simmering behind every word and deed before spewing out as fury. They can spark drastic actions, including the type that Val and Kevin have picked as their only option after the latter breaks the former out of a mental health hospital mere days after his last self-harming incident. Or, they can inspire a wholesale rejection of the milestones, such as the promotion that Val is offered hours earlier, that everyone is told they're supposed to covet, embrace and celebrate.
On the Count of Three covers all of the above, not just with purpose but with confidence, as well as a much-needed willingness to get messy. It knows it's traversing tricky terrain, and is also well-aware of the obvious: that nothing about considering taking one's own life is simple or easy, let alone a laughing matter. Working with a script by Ramy co-creators Ari Katcher (also a co-creator of The Carmichael Show) and Ryan Welch, Carmichael doesn't make a movie that salutes, excuses or justifies Val and Kevin's exit plan. His film doesn't abhor the emotions and pain behind their choices either, though. Instead, this is a complicated portrait of coping, and not, with the necessities, vagaries and inevitabilities of life — and a raw and thoughtful piece of recognition that the biggest standoff we all have is with ourselves.
Rocking a shock of dishevelled bleached-blonde hair, and looking like he hasn't even dreamed of changing his wardrobe since the early 00s, Abbott could've wandered out of Good Time as Kevin — he and Robert Pattinson could/should play brothers some day — including when he's staring down Val with a gun. First, On the Count of Three jumps from there to the events leading up to it, including an earlier attempt by landscaping supply store worker Val in the work bathrooms, his response to hearing about that aforementioned climb up the corporate ladder. In hospital, Kevin is angry; "if any of you knew how to help me by now, you would have fucking done it!" he shouts. But when the time to shoot comes, it's him who suggests a reprieve to take care of a few last items — revenge being his.
Calling On the Count of Three a bucket-list movie isn't quite right, because there's a difference between checking off your wildest dreams and working through the essentials that gnaw at you. Accordingly, and in its nervy, restless, go-go-go energy, too, the film is in day-in-the-life territory — focusing on Kevin's score to settle with a child psychologist, Dr Brenner (Henry Winkler, Barry), from his past, and Val getting his issues with his slippery dad Lyndell (JB Smoove, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Natasha, the woman he thought he was going to marry (Tiffany Haddish, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent), off his chest. In-between, its main twosome relive minor past glories, whether it's breakfast at a favourite diner or returning to the dirt-bike park job they loved as teens. Those guns have to go off in one way or another, though; Chekov demands it.
If On the Count of Three wasn't so deeply felt — so bitterly, unapologetically dark as well — and anchored by such compelling performances, it could've easily gone astray. Tragicomedy isn't straightforward, or simple to pull off. But Carmichael shows his skills as a director (he has TV documentary Sermon on the Mount and a Lil Rel Howery comedy special among his past helming credits otherwise) by skewing both intimate and wide. The film's one-on-one exchanges are candid and revelatory, while pivoting to tensely staged car chases and shootouts still feels natural. The crime-thriller sheen of Marshall Adams' cinematography helps, as does Owen Pallett's evocative score (especially during a climactic pursuit). And, that bickering, bantering, ride-or-die dynamic between the exceptional Abbott and the devastatingly understated Carmichael is captivating to watch.
It's a great time for seeing two well-paired actors bouncing off of each other and wanting more — see also: Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in the vastly dissimilar See How They Run — but On the Count of Three's on-screen chemistry is hardly surprising. Abbott keeps going from strength to strength in complex parts, such as James White, Black Bear and Possessor, while Carmichael knows how to match vulnerability with truth, as his comedy special Rothaniel made plain. Such a key factor here is balance, the elusive concept that Val and Kevin are searching for even if they don't necessarily know it. It bubbles through in the movie's comic moments, too; when On the Count of Three chuckles, it directs is humour at Val cathartically screaming along to Papa Roach's 'Last Resort' in such on-the-nose circumstances, Papa Roach in general, the way that minutiae always gets in everyone's way — whether they're planning to see another day or not — and only starting to live when you want to die.