We’re all living in a post-Garden State world, one where twee titles angle for a coveted Sundance launch, the punchlines (and reviews) mostly write themselves, and emotion-heavy films that play the festival inevitably skew too mawkish or quaint by half. This is, of course, a reductive bias not really confined to any single genre, but it holds more often than not. Still, while the Sundance model may be easier to spot than most, it remains a trap to blindly write off such fare. Case in point: On the Count of Three. In shape, it looks a lot like it was cast from this standard, aughts-and-after Sundance matrix. A dramedy that tackles dark themes, it readily ticks off a checklist of the festival’s most meme-able qualities: an indie-approved soundtrack (and, in this case, a score by the indie-approved Owen Pallett), topical fodder (mental illness and gun control), and a handful of blunt-force zingers constructed for their future quotability (“Kevin, thanks for hitting my dad over the head with a tire iron earlier. You’re a good friend, man.”). But such superficial strokes are not troublesome on their face, and while they are indeed often predictive of a certain depthlessness, it only makes for greater impact when something like On the Count of Three manages to skirt typical pratfalls.
The directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael, who also co-stars here, the film bears a bold logline: A buddy comedy about two friends who share a suicide pact. The agreement is made in the film’s early minutes: Kevin (Christopher Abbott), depressed and with a lifelong history of mental illness, is under observation after a failed suicide attempt; his best friend Val (Carmichael) helps him break out, grills Kevin about his continued ideation, and announces that he too has decided life isn’t worth living and they should shoot each other in the head. Kevin agrees, but only on the condition that the act takes place at the end of the day, which they will spend working through a bucket list of sorts, enacting vendettas and reclaiming power against those who have wronged them, with the help of a gun. (At one point, Kevin uses it to get the attention of a gas station clerk but still insists on paying, wholly mesmerized by the weapon’s suggestive power and gleefully yelling to a confused bystander, “It’s my right to bear arms, for some reason.”)
Ok, so that’s all pretty on-brand. What keeps On the Count of Three from succumbing to maudlin affectation is the gravity with which Carmichael considers his characters. Kevin’s struggles with mental illness are thrillingly nebulous, and while a narrative of trauma evolves across the film’s runtime, it never reduces his struggles to any pat explanation. Abbott trades in moody brooding for comedic mania, imbuing Kevin with a goofiness that never feels less than dangerous. Carmichael is given less to do as an actor, and his flat-affect, straight man schtick is predictably subordinated to the film’s convenient emotional crescendo — the climax feels inevitable but still rankles a bit for its convenient machinations, as certain crucial beats seem to exist, often against logic, only to usher in this ending. But as director, his handling of tone and theme is legitimately impressive. The central friendship is rich in chemistry and, importantly, evinces a genuine, moving love between the two, but it’s the darker undertones — discomfiting power dynamics and outright manipulation, particularly in light of Kevin’s mental health — that offer more to chew on. Likewise, its bouts of anarchic energy and comedic action are balanced with melancholic connective tissue, still, contemplative scenes set to the minimalist plucking and strings and occasional drum smacks of Pallett’s score. But perhaps the best example of the film’s careful equilibrium — and its facility at navigating both broad comedy and affecting drama — comes in a most unexpected place: a Papa Roach song. “Last Resort” becomes something of a running joke throughout the film, but at one point, after the duo briefly separates and Kevin finds and contemplates violence against an old high school bully, it takes on new meaning. Firing the song up for a bit of last-minute, head-thrashing motivation, his face instead begins to fall, lips faltering on the words: “Nothing’s alright, nothing is fine / I’m running and I’m crying.” Mining genuine emotion from a Papa Roach cut is Sundance done right.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.