Content warning: suicide.
In his directorial debut “On the Count of Three,” which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Jerrod Carmichael shows a rare prowess for balancing strikingly different tones. Though “On the Count of Three” has echoes of older films, such as “Thelma & Louise” or “Harold and Maude,” Carmichael’s film uniquely finds a hilarious comic undercurrent in the sense of all-pervading desolation felt by its characters.
We are first introduced to Carmichael’s Val and his best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott, in his second appearance of the festival after “The World to Come”) as they stand in an empty lot behind a strip club, aiming pistols at each other in stark daylight. From the get-go, Val and Kevin have an unspoken bond that, despite the bleakness of this opening image, shows through in Carmichael and Abbott’s gazes — they’re moments away from firing on one another, but it’s clear that the two aren’t antagonists. Instead, Val and Kevin feel strangely synchronous, like two sides of the same coin.
This in medias res beginning allows Charmichael and screenwriters Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch to delve directly into a crucial moment in the characters’ lives, tuning viewers in to the key dramatic questions that the script’s tight cause-and-effect logic will eventually come to address. From here, Katcher and Welch rewind the narrative and carefully unravel the circumstances that led each character to this moment of reckoning, successfully finding comedy in despair.
A few hours before this cold open, Val seems to be going through life in a fugue. He’s afraid to take the big next step in his relationship with Natasha (Tiffany Haddish) and is miserable at his dead-end job at a mulch factory. Carmichael commands these scenes through his impeccable comedic timing, no doubt informed by his stand-up background — he especially shines when Val is offered a promotion and a steady future at the factory, which spurs him to calmly lock himself in a bathroom stall and attempt to hang himself with his belt.
Meanwhile, Kevin, who has been institutionalized after surviving an intentional overdose, pleads unconvincingly that he’s a good candidate for release. After a life-long struggle with depression, Kevin is exhausted — Abbott’s severe intensity shows through when the facade is dropped and he seethes, “If any of you knew how to help me, you would have fucking done it by now!”
After Val’s suicide attempt fails, he decides to spring Kevin and the two make a pact to die together — but not before they square away some unfinished business. Dark and melancholic as this setup might be, Carmichael and Abbott’s chemistry compels the entire film, and the comedy grows naturally out of their committed performances. Both actors treat their characters with honesty and empathy, introducing nuance into dialogue that would sound woefully heavy-handed under most other circumstances. One of the film’s darkest and funniest scenes occurs when the two fight over the best music to play at the end — Val vetos Kevin’s nomination of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” because he feels it’s trite to kill yourself to a song about suicide.
As director, Carmichael smartly gives Abbott the more sensitive, animated role, reserving the more stoic Val for himself. Carmichael’s comedy seeps in subtly, while Abbott displays great range, channeling fervent passion in the more serious moments and immediately lapsing into exuberant physical comedy when appropriate.
At a brief 84 minutes, “On the Count of Three” wastes no time in superfluous self-indulgence. Instead, Carmichael’s directing style focuses on propelling the story forward, with each successive scene scaling the action up further. Katcher and Welch never lose sight of the film’s bigger concepts, respecting the gravity of the sensitive subject matter while still exploring the possibility of hope. The filmmakers never trivialize nor glorify suicide, but tell a compelling character-driven story that finds humor through the darkest moments of life. “On the Count of Three” ends in a manner that ultimately feels appropriate to these themes, even if it can’t help but sting.