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Sundance 2021: “On the Count of Three” is a dark, formidable first feature

Sundance On the Count of Three

Jerrod Carmichael’s grim bromance straddles a delicate balance of tones between comedy and dark thriller, buoyed by a couple of strong performances.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

On the Count of Three, the directorial debut from comedian Jerrod Carmichael, walks a tonal tightrope. It’s obvious from the first five minutes that this tightrope exists, and from the first 15 minutes, that it’s not always walked to perfection. Following lifelong, struggling best friends who agree on an end-of-day suicide pact, On the Count of Three combines Carmichael with the recent indie explosion that is Christopher Abbott. Playing Val and Kevin, the two characters spend their final day rewriting old wrongs, revisiting old foes, and seeing if they still can hop on a BMX bike and not shatter their ankles.

With a script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, the dark comedy finds humor in situations, rather than jokes. It scrapes humor from dire moments, like Val’s attempted suicide that starts the film, or Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” playing in the background of a diner as Kevin is approached by a high school bully. As the film increases in seriousness, both inside and around the floating-along bodies of Val and Kevin on this crime-filled day, some clarity emerges. These two men aren’t at the same points in their lives, in their states of depression, or in their willingness to die. 

Though it might be a film about Carmichael’s soon-to-be father Val, On the Count of Three becomes Abbott’s showcase. After receiving praise in Possessor and Black Bear, Abbott continues his run as one of the darlings of independent cinema, joining Robert Pattinson, Jessie Buckley, and a few others that critics fawn over. He’s manic, yet controlled. He commands the screen in On the Count of Three, showing his emotional chops as Carmichael stays even-keel beside him. 

Carmichael’s film shows his promise as a director, and as he grows and ages, his abilities, and confidence likely will as well. 

The film highlights Abbott’s ability to explore genre, not-always-great dialogue, and a character that feels like he has nothing to live for. Lauding him remains the correct course of action. Filled with anger and years of resentment, Kevin embodies a slew of missing resources, institutional mental health lapses, and a system that has given up on a man with incomparable trauma. On the Count of Three doesn’t tread on these topics with much focus or detail, glossing over race and class in its attempt to fill the bones of a buddy comedy with gloom, fury, and darkness. For better or worse, it’s less an indictment or investigation of systems, and more a specific look at the repercussions for two specific people looking for reasons to keep their eyes open. 

Carmichael’s direction contains care, though. His ability to give space, from each other, from their pain, from their responsibilities to his characters when needed represents an amount of assuredness. Framing many conversations with a camera slightly below face level, with a lens unafraid to get close and uncomfortable, Carmichael’s film shows his promise as a director, and as he grows and ages, his abilities, and confidence likely will as well. 

Despite its somewhat thrilling third act, the film only has one viable ending, which can be seen long before it reaches its conclusion. Carmichael rushes to this sense of finality on this day, though the depression these men struggle to treat extends beyond the contents of a single, 12-hour period. Maybe that’s the point, maybe it doesn’t need to feel earned. But in the scope of this 84-minute dark yet hopeful joyride, there’s more to this story that Carmichael and the writers decide not to examine. 

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