On the Count of Three will be released on digital VOD and in select theaters on May 13, 2022.
The film deals heavily with suicide, and the below review discusses its treatment of it in broad strokes. If you are having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the US is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. A list of international suicide hotlines can be found here.
A dark comedy that’s as bleak (and as bleakly funny) as they come, On The Count of Three follows two depressed best friends, Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Jerrod Carmichael), on the day they decide to kill themselves. The Sundance 2021 breakout marks Carmichael’s debut as a feature filmmaker, and sees him walking a tonal high-wire as he taps deep into millennial burnout — both as a director and as a performer — resulting in a grim, hilarious minor miracle of a movie that could so easily have gone wrong.
After teasing a scene where the two pals point handguns at each other, the film flashes back to earlier in the day, tracing how their double-murder-suicide pact came to be. Kevin, after an attempt at taking his own life earlier in the week, sits helpless in an institution that can’t seem to offer him a way to cope. Meanwhile, Val languishes in his dead-end job at a mulch factory, shuffling dead-eyed between conversations with senior managers who have far more enthusiasm about topsoil than he could ever hope to muster. Overcome by emotional numbness, he decides to spring Kevin and offers him the only mutual escape that seems on the cards for them — though not before they decide to spend their final day together, righting a few wrongs and living without consequence.
What immediately stands out about On The Count of Three is the caliber of its performances. Kevin and Val are framed as a kind of doomed comedic duo, with Abbott exhibiting a barely contained explosiveness as Kevin, while Carmichael tasks himself with holding back, interacting with his co-star (and with the larger premise) with a straight-faced approach. born from Val’s sheer lack of passion or desire. Where Kevin, a powder keg, threatens to derail every scene — from an encounter with a childhood bully that turns humiliating, to a simple gas station transaction that dovetails into the most polite stick-up you’ve ever seen — Val, conversely, has the responsibility of remaining cool so the duo can make good on their plans to blow each other’s brains out.
Val’s matter-of-fact-ness is met with a similarly matter-of-fact framing—both visually and narratively—for even the worst indignities life has to offer. The film is distinctly unsentimental despite its laser focus on wistful moments of life and energy, which arrive with a sense of renewal as both men knock on death’s door, but there’s little redemption or catharsis involved. One especially charged turn sees the two best buds planning a violent confrontation against a doctor who wronged Kevin as a child — rife with its own side-splitting subplot about how the otherwise anti-gun Kevin feels about his new affinity for firearms — but its invocation of trauma is much more honest and intimate than the kind seen in most contemporary pop culture (for instance, Marvel shows which press pause on their plots to reveal childhood experiences before returning to business as usual). In On The Count of Three, trauma is something that lives both deep within your bones and just beneath your skin, invading even the most mundane interactions, and manifesting in minor ways that Carmichael frequently frames as interpersonal banter in languid two-shots — no pun intended — given how well Val and Kevin know each other.
Indignities like lifelong disappointment are also framed by riveting absurdity. Few things this year are likely to be as dryly funny as an animatronic carp ripped from a McDonald’s commercial singing the Filet-O-Fish jingle as Val grasps desperately at one final shred of respect by fist-fighting his father (JB Smoove), though a much more minor scene that contrasts melancholy stillness with thrash metal certainly comes close. However, even in moments when the characters aren’t being thrust into strange scenarios, the visual texture creates a low hum of sorts, like Val and Kevin’s internal plight made real and physical. The scenes, shot by cinematographer Marshall Adams, are mostly bright and set during daytime, but the visual noise from the digital camera — usually most apparent during scenes filmed in darkness — envelopes each closeup, covering it in a static buzz that feels like a constant reminder of the numbness underscoring both characters.
On The Count of Three may be Carmichael’s first feature as a director, but he also helmed the inventive 2018 stand-up special Drew MichaelDrew Michael for HBO, which featured both a similar sense of psychological intimacy — the special is filmed mostly in tight frames and without any audience except for the camera — and a similar use of visual fabric to enhance his closeups, albeit through shifting color, rather than static . The approach he takes to this script (written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch) hints at a devastating maturity and honesty about death and mental health, given that his dry approach (to both aesthetic and performance) isn’t mere affectation, but a meaningful unearthing of mood. The film lasts only 86 minutes but it speeds off a number of different directions that all feel like logical extensions — or rather, rhythmic and harmonious ones — of where the story begins.
In a more literal sense, beginning the story with a flash forward in-media-res, of the two men ready to kill each other, frames their fate as a kind of inevitability, which places us directly alongside their bleak outlook on where their lives are headed. In doing so, each step they take becomes injected with a sense of mysterious possibility, since the rules otherwise binding them — laws, structures, jobs, and institutions — are things that no longer apply on their final day, since they’ve finally found a way to live like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a tragically beautiful sentiment, not despite the ugliness inherent in their plan, but because of it — a contradiction mined for comedy at every turn.