The opening moments of On the Count of Three couldn’t do a better job at sucking the audience into its dark, comedic presence. Two men face down one another with guns in an unexplained standoff, but the circumstances of the situation keep changing to throw us all off. Are they enemies? Well, no, we quickly see that this some sort of agreement between them to shoot the other on the count of three. But before the gun can go off, the film cuts to earlier in the day, and that’s when the story really begins.
We’re first introduced to Kevin (Christopher Abbot), who is spending time in a mental health facility due to a previous suicide attempt. But at this point, he’s convinced there’s nothing that can be done for him. Elsewhere, his best friend, Val (Jerrod Carmichael, who also directed the film), is working a dead-end job and now he too feels like perhaps suicide is his only way out. So the two men agree to end each other’s life by the end of the day, which makes them both wonder how their final hours should be spent. Not quite the buddy comedy you were expecting, right?
From there, the film explores a series of somewhat interconnected, episodic misadventures, as these two friends go from place to place, resolving past traumas and rekindling a few recent ones, as well as bickering about their nihilistic outlook on life as the day goes on. But sure enough, we know that the clock is ticking, and the question hangs in the air. Will they actually go through with this?
Despite such heavy and potentially triggering subject matter, On the Count of Three manages to balance its bleak pessimism with a hilarious script and understated performances. Neither Carmichael or Abbot come off as trying to be funny, or even to make each other’s characters laugh. It’s situational comedy at perhaps its finest, where characters are humorous simply for how they react to the world around them. But persistent in the background is, still, this lingering atmosphere of death, which is sure to make this film feel more and more tragic as the audience continues to connect with these characters and hope things will work out, somehow.
In some ways, On the Count of Three does manage to hold out for some surprises here and there. It’s not too predictable or too unpredictable. Some things will happen because they are inevitable, and other things won’t happen because the story calls for something else to enter the picture. Some of these surprises come in the form of a game secondary cast, including Tiffany Haddish as Val’s estranged girlfriend and Henry Winkler as a figure from Kevin’s past who has something coming to him, though we don’t know why for much of the film.
While unpacking On the Count of Three, most of the debate over its quality will likely center around its treatment of suicide as a serious issue. Does the film glorify it or downplay it? Does it offer a new way of looking at why people do it in the first place? These are all valid questions, and the film certainly succeeds at choosing a side one way or the other by the end (or does it?). But its real secret weapon is the heart behind its two lead performers. These are two men who feel cast out of society for different reasons, with the main connecting tissue being the toxic abuse they endured from older men throughout their young lives. As a film about men’s mental health and the validity of healing through friendships, On the Count of Three comes across like a balm to a problem no one wants to solve right now. It also helps that the film is wickedly funny.
On the Count of Three premiered Jan. 29, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here