On the Count of Three Cannot Sustain its Grand Ideas

Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut, On the Count of Three, is a darkly comedic thriller about mental health. The movie opens with Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) standing in an alleyway by a strip club with guns drawn on each other. They’re planning to fire on the count of three, and the movie cuts to black with the sound of a gunshot when they hit three.

It’s a stunning way to start the movie and immediately grips the audience. Best friends Val and Kevin have decided to commit suicide today. Kevin is already in the hospital after a recent suicide attempt and Val, at an all-time low with his mental health, breaks Kevin out. They agree to end their lives and spend their last day together. There are some wrongs from their past they would like to right, and they want to reminisce about some of the good times they had together when they were younger.

Carmichael has made a name for himself as a comedian. He’s done three stand-up specials for HBO and co-created, co-wrote, produced, and starred in NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which was based on his life. Those familiar with his comedy background will be disappointed, as On the Count of Three isn’t nearly as funny as promised. While a movie about a double suicide can’t be expected to be laugh-out-loud hilarious, the promise of a darkly comedic script was not fulfilled.

Val and Kevin point guns at each other

From a directing standpoint, On the Count of Three is obviously a feature debut. There’s no definitive voice in Carmichael’s directing, and many of the shots feel like the most expected set-up. This story and the distinct tone the film is going for need a directorial vision that is strong. Carmichael’s nuanced performance as Val, though, is extremely compelling.

The premise of a mental health-conscious film by way of a double suicide buddy movie is fascinating and intriguing. The starkness of Val and Kevin pointing guns at each other while standing in front of a hot pink strip club ad is a strong opening. Even as the film moves backward in time to give the audience an understanding of who Val and Kevin are and how they got to that point, it is still engaging. And yet, somewhere down the road of freedom and revenge the guys are on, the movie gets lost.

Val and Kevin eat lollipops in an elevator

On the Count of Three feels like it wants to make a meaningful statement about male friendships, mental health, and childhood abuse, but it never reaches below the surface. The ignition point of a joint suicide pact is dark, but it feels honest given the mental state of Val and Kevin. Unfortunately, the movie never fully digs into that mental state to help the audience understand these people. That’s not to say On the Count of Three couldn’t work, because there’s enough scaffolding to prove that there are interesting ideas at play. However the script feels unfinished. The premise and the darkly comedic tone the film strives for is certainly inspired by the chaos of the Safdie brothers, but On the Count of Three needs more polishing to get its point across.

There are many ways this film could have gone downhill, given the tones it’s trying to balance. It manages to blend depression and absurdism without ever causing the audience to feel like Val and Kevin are being edgy for the sake of pushing the envelope. While it doesn’t manage to sustain that balance throughout the entire film, the scenes where it’s in perfect harmony are gut punches. In particular, the last scene is a striking end to the intensity that came before. In the last third of the movie, there’s also a scene where Kevin takes Val’s car and goes joyriding. He’s blaring Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and earnestly singing along. It’s probably the film’s highest moment. On the Count of Three is so close to being great, but isn’t able to sustain its own grand ambitions.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Amy Adams her Oscar.

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