Warning: This movie contains frank discussions and depictions of suicide, so please take note before reading this review — or sharing it with others — if you find that subject matter sensitive.
It’s an arresting image: Two friends standing across from one another, each with a loaded gun pointed at the other’s head. Suffice to say most buddy comedies don’t open with the promise of a suicide pact fulfilled, but then again On the Count of Three doesn’t really operate like most buddy comedies. In fact, despite being the directing debut of standup comedian Jerrod Carmichael, the film mines far more tragedy than comedy from the lives of its two deadbeat protagonists.
On that front, Carmichael deserves credit for crafting a first feature with such an aggressively bleak perspective. When we meet Val (Carmichael), he’s getting a promotion at a job about which he couldn’t care less. Afterwards, he rushes into a bathroom stall, wraps a belt around his neck and half-heartedly tries to strangle himself. The stall isn’t nearly tall enough to hang from, which — without mitigating any real-life suicide attempts — implies that this specific attempt is more a scream into the void for Val than a genuine desire to end his own life. Dodging phone calls from his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish in an impressive cameo) and dishing flippant retorts to co-workers concerned about the lengths of his smoke breaks, Val is just struggling to still give a shit.
Val’s best friend Kevin, played by Christopher Abbott (in the midst of an indie-career renaissance right now after last year’s Possessor and Black Bear), is somehow in an even darker place at the film’s beginning, hospitalized after his recent suicide attempt and trying (and failing miserably) to feign regret to a state-appointed therapist. When Val comes by to visit him, they make a brisk and unexciting escape through an open window, and that’s where On the Count of Three’s plot — a day-long odyssey fueled by self-discovery and self-destruction — shifts into high gear. Val flashes two handguns to Kevin, and they both vow to end each other’s lives by the end of the day. However, with the newfound promise of death, they decide to first settle some old scores with people who have wronged them in the past, primarily a doctor (Henry Winkler) who abused Kevin when he was a kid, ruining his life before it could even start. Since they’ll be dead soon, there’s no need to worry about going to prison over one measly pedophile… or any of the other sketchy shenanigans they may find themselves in by the time the sun’s setting.
That set-up probably makes On the Count of Three sound like more of a grim, bloody thriller than it actually is. Those elements are indeed a significant part of the movie’s genetic makeup, but plenty of its second act instead resembles ’90s Sundance darlings such as Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Richard Linklater’s Slacker, where directionless young adults distract one another with sardonic wit and cyclical conversations about their lack of futures. Carmichael fires off the occasional, hilarious insight that feels right out of his own mind rather than Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s screenplay.
Case in point, when Kevin cranks up Papa Roach’s 2000 frat-boy suicide anthem “Last Resort,” it’s a telling contrast between pop culture’s romantic portrayal of suicide and the sad desperation of the real thing. But Carmichael abruptly interjects: “Don’t listen to music that describes your exact emotional state. I don’t listen to Alanis Morissette when I’m going through a breakup, and I definitely don’t listen to fucking Papa Roach on the day I’m going to kill myself.” Such a cynical joke seems ripped straight from the actor’s standup routine, but Carmichael’s debut doesn’t often traffic in that buddy-comedy banter: the themes are too upsetting for this to be a simple Linklater throwback. Still, given the strength of Abbott and Carmichael’s on-screen chemistry — and how effectively their rapport conveys the dynamics of their friendship — it’s a bit ironic that viewers might find themselves wishing the filmmakers hadn’t set their sights so high.
Unfortunately, that ambition is what stops the movie from reaching its full potential. The story is essentially a series of pit stops made by Kevin and Val as they cruise around in their yellow Jeep, seeking vengeance for childhood traumas that paved the way for their miserable adulthoods. Considering the relentlessly dour tone here, it’s no shocker when the two friends’ potential last day on Earth inevitably collapses into chaos.
That chaos ratchets up quickly, and it’s here that the messiness of Katcher and Welch’s screenplay begins to show. As our nihilistic duo’s circumstances turn from bad to worse, On the Count of Three continually writes itself into corners which can only result in one or two believable outcomes. By nature, this type of story relies on “how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this?” plot twists to generate suspense, and that tension falters early on once the rough shape of these characters’ fates comes into focus. And when the resolution does hit, well, it feels more like a betrayal of Kevin and Val than any kind of catharsis.