Remember The Jerrod Carmichael Show? The stand-up comedian was always an odd fit for a traditional sitcom. His humor lends itself to rather dark observations, finding the funny where one least expects it. He left that show of his own creation for more worthy pursuits, and that has led us to this, his directorial On the Count of Three, a film that plays to Carmichael’s talents by mining laughs out of the gloomy subject of suicide.
This sobering drama masquerading as a buddy comedy begins with the stark image that likely drew many a Sundance viewer to it in the first place. Two friends, Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), pistols aimed at one another’s heads as if in a sick duel to the death. They’re both ready to give up on life, having made a suicide pact to end it all at the barrel of a gun. You can see it; there’s no hatred in them. “I love you, my nigga”. These two are more than friends, bonded by the shitty lives that have led them to this moment. There is something sweet, brotherly, in their arriving at this conclusion.
It’s not a spur of the moment decision, either. The depression that drags these two down like a deadweight is dealt with seriously by writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, enough that they confidently seek out the absurdities of their plan. This is a movie about a suicide pact, but it’s also a wildly enjoyable, unexpectedly funny story with heart and Safdie Brothers levels of edginess.
Carmichael and Abbott are top of their game here, mining plenty of dark humor out of tragedy, and meaning in the music of Papa Roach. Kevin, sporting a shock of dyed blond “Ramen noodle” hair that makes him look like Robert Pattinson in Good Time, has been committed to a mental health facility after attempting suicide. After years of going in and out of treatment, Kevin isn’t listening to their plans to help him now. He has other reasons for mistrust of the system. The abusive side of it has scarred him for whatever remains of his life.
Val has a different, but no less tragic backstory, although initially we just feel his disconnect from anything resembling happiness. A promotion at a dead-end job is the nail in the coffin. Rather than taking it as a sign of advancement, Val has no reaction at all. His banal response is to try and off himself in the bathroom toilet, to the sounds of Travis Tritt and an annoying co-worker lurking nearby.
Instead, he comes with the idea to break his best buddy Kevin out of the hospital so they can shoot one another in the head. End this thing proper like. Kevin is shocked by the idea at first. He knows why he wants to die, but Val? It takes some convincing for Kevin to go along with the idea.
“I think about it all the time and it brings me comfort. I was told my best friend tried to kill himself and I felt nothing”, Val says.
Surprisingly, it’s Kevin who balks at the first attempt. He wants to do it at night, so they can have one final day to do all the things they never did. Unsurprisingly, they both come up with plots for vengeance, to strike out with violence against those who drove them down such a hopeless in the first place. And since they’re going to die that same day, repercussions are an afterthought.
What unfolds is a strange sort of misadventure, a buddy-comedy about redemption, and how being on the verge of death can be an interesting catalyst for getting your shit straight. There are plenty of bumps in the road, just as much sophomoric hijinks as bloody retribution. In a way, On the Count of Three is a gritty, urban mirror to the boojie search for closure in fellow Sundance comedy, How It Ends. Except here you get comedian JB Smoove as Val’s unrepentantly crooked father, and Henry Winkler in a repulsive performance as Kevin’s former therapist. Although she has just one key moment, Tiffany Haddish hits home as Val’s ex, who gives him some news that forces a reconsideration of his plan.
Contradictions abound at every illogical decision the duo make, and some of the greatest laughs come at how the tables are turned on their various schemes. No matter what, these two aren’t hardened killers so when they actually confront most of the people they aim to harm, it tends to go poorly and in comical fashion. We’re never asked to look past the many hypocrisies that make Kevin and Val feel like real people. Their choices are irrational, fueled by forces most of us will never understand. Through it all, Kevin and Val begin to recognize, even appreciate, the craziness of the world at large. So when Kevin pulls a gun on an inattentive cashier, then pays for the goods he easily could’ve just walked out with, he marvels about the power of owning a gun and why America isn’t happier since everybody can get one.
Carmichael keeps his first time behind the camera fairly simple in terms of scope. Eventually, he expands it to include a high-speed car chase and a standoff with police that feels straight out of Thelma & Louise. It’s a competent debut behind the camera for Carmichael, one that finds him with a keen eye for conversation and the way people show their love in small physical gestures. What will come as a shock is that Carmichael is topped by Abbott as the comedic driving force. Abbott, a Sundance staple who has never given a performance at less than an 11 on the intensity scale, shows his aptitude for comedy as he did in last year’s Black Bear and Hulu series Catch-22.
On the Count of Three treads on dangerous thematic ground. Go too far in the wrong direction and you’ve got an inappropriately glib take on depression, but Carmichael and Abbott’s performances help in walking the balance. This might be a movie about people in profound pain, existing in a world that has been cruel, but it’s okay to take pleasure in seeing them find the light, even if just for a moment.