Sundance 2021 ‘On the Count of Three’ Review: A Confrontationally Morbid Triumph of Bleak Humor

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Leave it to Jerrod Carmichael to craft a disarmingly funny film out of a suicide pact between two young men at the end of their respective ropes. From the standup stage to the sitcom format, he has balanced broad comedy with a caustic iconoclasm before, though his incisive wit can list into the misanthropic, and occasionally nihilistic, somewhat too often to retain much gravity. But with his feature directorial debut On the Count of Three, Carmichael strikes a remarkably effective tone, thanks to a stark, minimal approach, a witty script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, and yet another arresting performance from co-lead Christopher Abbott. 

The film is elevated considerably by Abbott’s complex turn as Kevin, a suicidal white man committed to an institution who is convinced his life should end as soon as reasonably possible. His best friend Val (played by Carmichael) spent most of their childhood trying to remind Kevin of the joys and values of life, but as his thankless job and increasingly daunting personal life squeeze even his optimism to the brink, Val decides to end his life as well. So, he enlists Kevin to help.

After a brisk, cleverly crafted escape from the institution, Val and Kevin plan to end each other’s lives quickly and simply, with two handguns pointed at each other’s foreheads. However, in a remarkably bold plot concept, each of them keeps finding reason after reason to delay the trigger a few hours more, and On the Count of Three plays out as the tale of two men suddenly sure that today is their last day on Earth. On this “bonus day,” as Kevin terms it, they decide to act accordingly. These close friends — Abbott and Carmichael’s dynamic is exquisitely-acted and seemingly effortless — encourage each other to settle resentments and long-festering scars in their respective pasts. For Val, it’s his abusive father he must see one last time. For Kevin, it’s a psychologist who violated his mind and sense of security in pernicious ways during his youth. To the film’s immense credit, neither confrontation — or the numerous other, often hilarious, encounters that come their way — ends as the viewer might expect.

This air of unpredictable, spur-of-the-moment rhythm is what elevates On the Count of Three above being yet another rote entry in Depression Cinema: those works that broadly and blandly address mental health as a mass-culture hot-button issue, rather than a complex, highly subjective area of personal perspective. On the contrary, the film’s various characters each come to understand their life paths through considerably divergent interpretations. In addition to Val and Kevin, supporting characters played memorably by Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler add further nuance and range to this tapestry of psychological reckoning. Each member of the production team, on and offscreen, clearly dedicated ample thought and clarity to their participation; this compelling combination of relentlessly bold writing, confident direction, and complex performances results in a whip-smart study of how different types of people seek out and recognize meaning, fulfillment, and reasons to stay alive.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In case it wasn’t clear yet: fair warning, On the Count of Three is not the kind of film that plays into a sunny worldview. Instead, Carmichael’s dedication to a certain frank, blunt realism lets these severely depressed, unsure characters’ days develop as they may. Kevin and Val push on like we all do, even as blood is spilled, sudden decisions spiral into enflamed skirmishes, and various revelations shift their perspective as their borrowed time stretches on. 

Both men turn in engaging, nuanced performances, just as likely to spring into an emotional outburst as into an uproariously funny back-and-forth. Abbott yet again proves his status as one of modern cinema’s best working actors, and even if the thematic resonance may not convince or compel every viewer, his performance is sure to impress no matter what. His embodiment of Kevin is shifty but thoughtful, sure of his own hopelessness but ready to vociferously defend what social values he still believes in. Carmichael deftly alludes to the omnipresent racial dimension between the two buddies: even though Kevin clearly loves Val unquestioningly, he constantly couches his statements in clumsy references to Val’s unique experience as a Black man in America, to the point that even during sequences of acute, intense danger, Kevin insists on vocally expressing his progressive worldview. Rather than being a cloying or forced reference to such a topic, Abbott’s earnest waffling and Carmichael’s blunt responses make these moments all the more humanizing, and are yet another testament to the film’s high-wire handling of what could easily have been discordant tones. 

Make no mistake, this is a confrontationally morbid experience, just as inviting for its cast’s magnificent performances as it is dispiriting in its unapologetic grimness. But to dismiss as trivial the film’s marriage of emotional, triggering subject matter with gallows humor irony would be a mistake. On the Count of Three is all the more powerful for handling its subjects without forcing a lightness or accessibility into the challenging proceedings. Here Carmichael demonstrates the power of restraint, and the value of portraying life’s difficulties with compassionate, clear-eyed honesty. It’s a triumph of grim, emotionally complex comedy, and while a few steps further into misanthropy may have proven too far, Carmichael and his team achieve a splendid balance of earnest laughs and bleak candor. It’s not for the easily offended or the easily disheartened, but On the Count of Three is nevertheless a marvelous confluence of talents (Abbott being a standout), and a compelling presence at this year’s Festival. 

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