In 2022, centring your film on mental health is an interesting one, we’re deep in an era where we analyse it, challenge the conceptions, take a deeper delve, and why? Because we should. We’ve never had a time this open in the modern age, and particularly after the last few years of lockdowns, shutdowns and a shift in how we all live. Uncertain personalities and people on film are no longer just a ‘crazy’ person to dismiss, it could be someone you know, a friend or family member or even, of course, you.
Written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, On the Count of Three is the directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael, in which he also co-stars alongside Christopher Abbott, in what’s essentially a dark comedy-drama about the last day for two friends who no longer want to live but is definitely self-aware enough to never mock suicide, in fact, it brings up both comedy and questions over individual perceptions, and also an equal measure of reflection and seriousness.
Carmichael’s direction, with calmly balanced, unpretentious cinematography from Marshall Adams, always keeps us close inside the world of the lead pair, and we open the film with the two friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abbott) with a gun to each other’s head, it’s safe to say that On the Count of Three isn’t messing around and we’re thrown right into the ‘plan’ they’ve got for their lives at that moment.
Cut to black and a gunshot sound, we return to earlier that morning, so this setup gives us where we could end up – at some point – with the traditional: How did we get here? Think of a rework of the one-day-before retirement, but with a sharp revision. Leading our flashback is Kevin, who’s found in a psychiatric unit, talking to his psychologist, discussing his suicidal thoughts and denying he’s got any issues. Obviously, his self-evaluation isn’t fooling her, and we learn it’s only been a week since he tried to kill himself, and with that Kev reveals a little too much, more of his history and loses self-control.
Then, we get an insight into Val (Carmichael) and his day job, which is clearly uninspiring, but somehow, he’s offered a promotion but then he tries to kill himself in the staff bathroom. It’s disturbing. It feels real, depressing and painful. But the scene is cleverly juxtaposed with a co-worker coming in, singing an upbeat song and knocking Val out of his head space. This is dark but it works in the moment. Overall, there are a few generic narrative threads within Kev and Val’s stories, and the roots follow a path similar to common movie mental health avenues, and a touch of wanting to go out in a blaze of glory, but Carmichael’s direction keeps the central focus important, and the portrayals from both Carmichael and Abbott keep a strong hold of their characters.
And this is what makes On the Count of Three work, both leads come across authentically, both in their long-term friendship and their own personal demons and struggles. Their pact is that by the end of the day, they’ll end their lives together because they feel nothing is left to live for, but do Val and Kev truly have the same depth of despair? That is what you’ll learn as both their stories unfold, and they’re compelling and captivating as it all unravels. Tiffany Haddish also stars, she brings a simple truth with her character, Tash. There are also solid roles for Henry Winkler, Lavell Crawford and J.B. Smoove – The latter who features in a standout scene as Val’s Father, one that switches impressively in atmosphere, for the right reasons.
Carmichael’s film is layered with dark comedy, which helps balance the subject matter, the moment playing The Last Resort is inspired (and you can see that in the trailer here), there’s a store robbery scene which defies the usual logic and is brilliant, and there’s also loads of little funny moments amongst their planned last day on earth. I enjoyed the comments about guns ‘giving insecure men the illusion of power,’ and there’s no doubting that it’s full of statements on American society but achieved in a smart way, with a sharp delivery.
Dark, absurd and ballsy, On the Count of Three is also an honest, ambitious debut from Jerrod Carmichael, which retains its dark undertone of deep reality with a smart take on a classic setup.