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Sundance 2021 Review: On The Count of Three – “Something fairly unique”

Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael appear in On the Count of Three by Jerrod Carmichael, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams.

A word of caution prior to the review and about this film – it deals almost entirely with suicide.  If this is a difficult topic to read about, please avoid.  Take care of yourself, and each other.

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How do you end up pointing a gun at your best friend while he does the same to you?  In the parking lot of a strip club (because it’s a place with a lot of privacy at 10:30 in the morning) Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are doing just that, not out of a place of aggression, but compassion.  Both these men have decided that the only way out is to end their lives, and they’re going to do it together.

We meet Val at work, employed at a thankless job, ignoring his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) as she continues to call his phone.  He’s reached a tipping point.  But when an attempt to hang himself in the workplace bathroom goes awry, he switches gears and instead breaks his friend Kevin out of the psychiatric hospital where he is receiving treatment, having himself attempted to commit suicide just days before.  They make a pact to end each other’s lives and end up in that parking lot.  It’s then Kevin decides he needs one more day to tie up some loose ends, so driving around in Val’s obnoxiously yellow Jeep, they both go about some unfinished business.  But the day doesn’t exactly play out as anticipated, testing their friendship and also their resolve.

On The Count of Three is the feature directorial debut for Carmichael, who doesn’t make it easy on himself playing double duty with a starring role.  Best known for his sitcom, The Carmichael Showhis first turn behind the camera doesn’t disappoint.  He works from a script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, co-creators of Hulu’s Ramy, that often toes the line of appropriateness (and in a couple of cringe-worthy places sneaks a little past it).  It is certainly a highwire act trying to balance the tone between the ‘buddy comedy’ this tries to be with its somber overall premise but it largely succeeds.  The humour is dryly witty and often aimed at a specific type of viewer (Kevin at one stage feeling the power he gets from wielding his gun notes, “I’m starting to feel like a hypocrite with all the gun control stuff I post”).  There is, obviously, nothing funny about suicide.  And while the filmmakers do inject some fast passing exchanges about politics and inequality, and some humour around Papa Roach’s song Last Resort, they never truly lose sight of the seriousness of this duo’s pact.  This is touted as a ‘dark comedy’ and it presents as such.

The film is elevated by the cast of characters that are assembled.  Tiffany Haddish, while under-utilized here, tries to be the voice of reason for Val, and Henry Winkler is well cast in a small role as a menacing part of Kevin’s past.  But On The Count of Three belongs to Christopher Abbott, exploring Kevin’s raw emotional state and increasingly manic behaviour with arresting fervour.  After a great performance in last year’s Sundance offering Black Bear and, from what I hear Possessor (sorry, I don’t do horror), Abbot continues to evolve in interesting ways.  Carmichael’s Val, numb and detached from the world is largely the straight man here, but is a necessary component to the duo’s chemistry.

On the Count of Three certainly isn’t perfect, and comes with a bit of a harrowing ending in its third act.  On subject matter alone, this film may understandably rub some people the wrong way.  However, it becomes memorable for finding some sincerity and humanity amongst the juxtaposition of dark humour and dark experiences.  In just over 80 minutes, Carmichael and his team craft something fairly unique, and the director himself becomes a new voice to watch.

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