“It’s dark and bracing, but unafraid to let its characters be soulful, vulnerable, and complex.”
by Ken Bakely
An important thing to note about Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three – to understand how it goes about its business and what makes its accomplishments so impressive – is that it must carefully maintain both a high concept and a loose realization. It’s a buddy movie in which Carmichael, in an assured directorial debut, carefully navigates the complicated and thorny implications of his setup while sprawling out a friendship between two characters in relaxed and casual rapport. This is the story of Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), two longtime friends with suicidal ideation. One morning, Val breaks Kevin out of the psychiatric hospital he’s being held at, and declares that, being in the possession of two handguns, they will take each other’s lives. At the last possible second, Kevin convinces him to delay the deed for just a little while, and make the most out of their remaining time before executing the plan at the end of the day. Until then, they are to spend the remaining time to settle scores, seek revenge, and generally act with the reckless abandon of knowing they won’t wake up tomorrow to face the consequences of what they’ve done today. The plot isn’t much more intricate than that, and to a point, everything that happens therein is less about what awaits them in particular, and more about examining these characters’ shifting dynamics and their complex backstories as they wander through their planned final hours.
There’s a very specific tone at play here. The comedy – and the film can be bleakly, grimly, unapologetically funny – never feels like an aside or a respite from the proceedings. Carmichael does not want us to feel that we can escape the heft of what’s going on. Instead, On the Count of Three feels more like a finely-tuned drama that’s steeped in cool, intrinsic absurdity. Val and Kevin – well, Kevin mainly – initiate and engage in quietly ludicrous conversation, thinking about everything from gun politics (Kevin can never escape how strange it is that he’s just allowed to have this gun) to the ways they will go about their to-do list for this last day. They are both survivors of abusive childhoods in various forms and from many perpetrators, and consider killing some of those who have traumatized them – a subplot that forms yet another weighty consideration for Carmichael to work through. And there are certainly times when it feels like his movie wanders too far adrift, or shifts too abruptly, to handle everything that’s going on, but the vision he does have is so bold and uncompromising that the film never feels like it’s second-guessing itself. Something this risky and dark could not survive an ounce of hesitation without beginning to fall apart at the seams, and quite brilliantly for his first feature, Carmichael – working from a script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch – never blinks. He never lets the viewer out of his film’s free-wheeling but sturdy grasp. This is always, if nothing else, so fascinating and interesting to watch and to process. It’s daring and bracing, but unafraid to let its characters be soulful, vulnerable, and complex.
To that end, Carmichael and Abbott excel in forging a well-worn chemistry; both also excel in their own right. Carmichael’s Val has a cool resolve which allows him a committed, deadpan delivery of his extreme intentions, which contrasts sharply against Abbott’s more chaotic Kevin. The actor gives nothing short of a stunning performance here, taking the character whose backstory is more gradually spooled out – though still remains at a deliberate arm’s length – and yet he still delivers rounded, nuanced, and unpredictable work that considers Kevin’s deep pain and his surrealistic decisions as part of a complicated, human whole. On the Count of Three gives us a starting point for where these two men begin and what they seem to want, and allows their positions, and our understanding, to subtly, gradually change as the movie builds to new and unexpected twists. But at the same time, it’s not about the reveals or even about how this all climaxes: this is a film whose successes are dependent on its ability to walk thin tightropes. It lives between existential, wrenching despair and the strange and simple thrill that comes from watching these two spend their wild day together. This is an often-challenging movie that doesn’t mind making its viewer uncomfortable, and though that extraordinary level of confidence may not always pay off in relation to what it achieves, it has a clear understanding its characters and their lives, as well as the verve and drive to deliver on the uneasy but well-earned laughs it mounts.