My deepest sympathies to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re getting into when watching On the Count of Three. That’s how bold and out there the premise is for this film. This is one of the titles that’s a victim of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival being virtual. In a normal year, word of mouth would spread about this movie, leading to folks in Park City stumbling into it on reputation alone. I’d have regaled in the responses to this flick, which is admittedly a really good one, but not for everyone. Luckily, this has managed to go from one of Sundance’s most anticipated in 2021 to one of its best.
On the Count of Three may be the directorial debut from actor and comedian Jerrod Carmichael, but it feels just as much like something that the Safdie Brothers could have come up with. There isn’t quite the stress level that the latter have trademarked, but Carmichael finds a similarly weird premise to jump off from. To be sure, the plot description is more likely to turn off viewers than attract them. However, that does this movie a disservice, since it actually has a ton to say.
Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are best friends who have decided to kill themselves. Kevin was recently hospitalized for a foiled attempt, while Val has just abandoned an attempt while at work. Breaking his friend out of the hospital, Val decides that they should kill each other. He’s thought it through, sees no other alternative, and thinks it’s a great idea. Kevin is hesitant, but eventually agrees, though chickens out at the last moment. Then, he proposes a compromise. They’ll do it that night, allowing them to have one last day, doing everything they’ve always wanted to do. For him, that includes killing the therapist (Henry Winkler) who abused him as a child. Of course, he’s not in the office until later, so they’re at a standstill.
With a few hours to kill, the friends drive around, running into several people. Each take turns being more or less enthusiastic about the situation, but they’re committed. Kevin is a mess, but Val seems far more put together. Even when he goes to see his girlfriend Natasha (Tiffany Haddish), it doesn’t quite make sense. Life doesn’t always make sense though, and as the hours tick away, we come to learn a lot about both friends.
Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael are tremendously good, earning your sympathy early on. From there on, they make poor decision after poor decision, well before redemption even rears its head as a potential outcome. Abbott has played similarly disturbed roles before, but never with this mix of comedy and drama. Carmichael, on the other hand, is a revelation, showcasing some real complexity. Supporting players like Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler have small roles, but the focus is always on Abbott and Carmichael.
Jerrod Carmichael takes a script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, commits to the premise, and goes to town. Katcher and Welch move from genre to genre almost without pause, so it’s a credit to Carmichael that he’s mostly able to keep up. The laughs aren’t quite as big as you’d hope, and the drama isn’t quite as impactful on its own, but together, it works. Especially during the climax, it combines for something rather effective.
On the Count of Three takes a disturbing premise and does an impressive amount with it. Carmichael’s filmmaking debut shows a ton of potential and immediately makes him a talent to watch out for. Provided you don’t get turned off by tough material and uneasy laughs, this one is going to catch your attention. It’ll likely be scooped up from Sundance in short order, so expect to see it come your way soon!