Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. United Artists releases the film in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 13.
Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three” isn’t super heavy on the kind of koan-like quips that have always lent his confrontational standup comedy its velvet punch, but this one — delivered in the opening minutes of his suicide-dark but violently sweet directorial debut — resonates loud enough to echo throughout the rest of the film: “When you’re a kid they tell you the worst thing in life is to be a quitter. Why? Quitting’s amazing. It just means you get to stop doing something you hate.”
Lifelong best friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are both ready to give up. The first time we see them they’re standing in the parking lot outside an upstate New York strip club at 10:30 a.m. with handguns pointed at each other’s heads as part of a double-suicide pact. Nobody’s laughing, but you can already feel the love between them; something about the look in their eyes reads more like “sisters who are pregnant at the same time” than it does “strangers who are about to shoot each other in the face.”
If that feels like a glib way to start a movie — especially a death-obsessed buddy comedy about depression — that’s only because you don’t know these guys yet. This isn’t just some cheap edge-lord stunt, either in front of or behind the camera. The specifics of their exit strategy might’ve come together on a whim, but Val and Kevin have been sinking towards this moment for a long time, and there’s almost something harmonious about how they’ve arrived in such perfect unison at this place where facing the future is scarier than the prospect of not having one.
They take their lives seriously enough for us to respect why they want to take their lives at all, and so does the masterfully calibrated movie around them. Working from a script by his longtime collaborators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch (whose ability to find narrative precision through free-wheeling chaos is one of several ways this project feels like it’s related to the Safdie brothers), Carmichael rewinds the clock a few hours. From that cold open, he unloads a sensitive but improbably fun story that thrives on the contradictions behind a friendship so beautiful that both parties want to end it with bullets. A small film that takes some big swings with its eyes wide open and never dares to be prescriptive, “On the Count of Three” finds humor in despair, reason in futility, pathos in the music of Papa Roach, and — most shocking of all — an all-timer of a comic performance in Christopher Abbott.
Not that Abbott fails to bring any of his signature intensity to the table here. If anything, Kevin feels like a borderline work of self-parody at first. Rocking an unfortunate dark beard and dyed-blond hair combo that inspires one character to nail him as a “ramen noodle-headed motherfucker,” Kevin is involuntarily committed to a mental health facility at the chronological start of this story, and just a few days removed from his most recent suicide attempt. Needless to say, he isn’t bullish about whatever treatment they might try next: “If any of you knew how to help me by now you would have fucking done it!” he shouts, and might have a point there.
Valentino Watson doesn’t share the same grim history of childhood molestation, but he’s got plenty of his own demons to deal with, and seems even more committed to killing himself than his buddy does. His gut reaction to getting a promotion at the mulch factory where he works is to hang himself by his belt in the office bathroom.
That plan is abandoned for a better one: Val will break Kevin out of the clinic for a proper goodbye. Kevin goes along with the first part, then balks at the second. What if, he proposes, they give themselves 24 hours to play with house money and use up all of their unspent living? One day of borrowed time, and then they’ll pull the triggers. Great. But what the boys might initially envision as some kind of ultra-nihilistic riff on “The Bucket List” gradually blossoms into a low-key screwball misadventure that plays more like an emotionally liberated game of “Grand Theft Auto” than anything else, as Kevin and Val find that the promise of a mutual suicide pact has a funny way of inspiring people to “stop standing in their own fucking way.” Sure, this film is mighty on the nose at times, but you’re not going spend the last day of your life being subtle.
And, without losing sight of its deadly serious stakes, “On the Count of Three” is very funny. Abbott and Carmichael love their characters as much as their characters love each other. Kevin and Val may be troubled and self-annihilating but they’re not stupid, and the actors never play down to these guys in order to find the contagious joy in breaking all the rules of life they’ve always been conditioned to follow (namely: that you need to keep living it). That’s where most of the laughs come from, as Kevin’s plan to murder the doctor who molested him as a child finds him puzzling over the sheer ridiculousness of being allowed — even encouraged! — to own in a gun in a country where people insist that every life is sacred. That’s another contradiction. So is the fact that his abuser left him the only piece of advice that might be powerful enough to pull him back from the edge.
Carmichael doesn’t shy away from this mess. That’s never been his style, either in his standup or on “The Carmichael Show.” His natural confidence as a director only grows increasingly evident as “On the Count of Three” ramps up and widens its scope to include car chases and shootouts, but he’s also never had more support than he does here, from Owen Pallett’s versatile score (which always helps the movie to feel 10 times bigger than it is) to Marshall Adams’ honest but pliable cinematography, which renders the dreary gloaming of a New York winter with the giddy sense that a crime thriller could break out at any moment.
But “On the Count of Three” can ultimately afford the temerity to thread the needle between comedy and desolation because of how Abbott and Carmichael work together. Like a game of Russian roulette, this is a movie that would have seemed embarrassingly stupid if things had gone wrong. It’s a dangerous and somehow enjoyable movie that dances around the edge of an open wound from start to finish as it risks making light of the heaviest things that so many of its viewers will ever have to carry. But it’s exhilarating — a little at first, and then a hell of a lot — to see these characters find the kind of happiness worth dying for.
“On the Count of Three” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.