[Trigger Warning: On the Count of Three centers on suicidal characters. If you are considering self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255]
Sometimes when movies swing wildly between tones, it’s because the director doesn’t really have control over the material, so scenes aren’t landing with the emotional impact that the filmmaker intended. That’s not the case with Jerrod Carmichael’s feature debut On the Count of Three. Carmichael wants to keep us off balance between moments of deep melancholy and despair mixed with comic absurdity. It’s no mistake that he cast comedic actors like Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler in dramatic supporting roles. He’s playing with our expectations to put us in the minds of two characters who are feeling hopeless and depressed, but that doesn’t mean the world itself stops throwing curveballs. Carmichael’s approach doesn’t entirely work, but he does succeed at never trivializing suicide while still finding moments of levity and warmth.
Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Carmichael) are both feeling suicidal. Kevin attempted suicide three days ago by swallowing a bunch of pills and Val tried to hang himself with a belt in a bathroom stall at work. Val breaks Kevin out of a psych ward and offers him a plan: Val has two guns, and says that on the count of three, they’ll shoot each other in the head. However, right before they’re about to go through with it, Kevin realizes they both have some unfinished business, and since this is their last day on Earth, they may as well live like it. Trying to live like there’s no tomorrow, new complications arise in their plans to end it all.
Obviously, On the Count of Three goes to some very dark places. To Carmichael’s credit, he never tries to treat the suicidal actions themselves as comic, but rather how those actions keep getting interrupted. There’s no bumbling over the guns or lighthearted discussion of methods. Both characters are deadly serious about dying because neither one of them sees a reason to live anymore. For Kevin, he’s been traumatized his entire life and no one has been able to help him, but Val’s motives are bit more ambiguous and Kevin rightly points out that his friend may just be depressed, which isn’t the same thing as being suicidal. But since they’re now bound into this pact, neither friend is trying to stop the other. It creates this strange concoction of a selfish act having an altruistic component.
And yet Carmichael is also able to find the humor in these scenarios. There’s one scene in particular involving the song “Last Resort” by one-hit-wonders Papa Roach, and Carmichael doesn’t miss a beat on how corny it is to have a suicide anthem on the day you’re planning to commit suicide. It’s wild how On the Count of Three can swerve between darkest despair and oddball comedy within seconds, and I believe that’s entirely purposeful from Carmichael. He’s trying to keep the audience off-balance because the characters are off-balance. They both want to die, and yet they want to do it on their terms because they’ve felt so powerless their entire lives even though suicide is only the illusion of power.
In its own strange way, On the Count of Three becomes life-affirming not because it has some cathartic revelation that life is worth living, but rather by showing that life isn’t one thing (although the ending somewhat complicates that approach). Even in the depths of despair and disillusionment, there are new opportunities and oddities that can change our perceptions. And yet even here, Carmichael acknowledges that those changes have limitations, and he’s not willing to give his audience an easy answer at any point.
I wouldn’t necessarily qualify On the Count of Three as “ambivalent” about life, because ambivalence implies indifference, and it’s clear that Carmichael deeply cares about the emotional lives of his two protagonists. I’m just not entirely sure that for all its tonal shifts and big swings, the movie adds up to much more than life is complicated and we don’t always find the resolutions we’re seeking. But for a debut feature, I love that Carmichael is willing to make the leap even if the landing is uncertain. That makes him an exciting voice, and I’m eager to see what he does next.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, click on the links below:
Jeff also weighs in on Jared Leto’s new movie ‘The Little Things’ and HBO’s crime series ‘The Investigation.’
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