It’s almost impossible to be a darker dark comedy than On the Count of Three. When two lifelong best friends both decide they want to end their lives, they make a pact, and agree that at the end of the day, they’ll put a gun to each other’s heads and pull the trigger. But before they do that, they’ll spend their final day living without the fear of consequences. So yeah, it’s dark. At the same time though, it’s life-affirming, but not in a cheesy, sugarcoated sense, and consistently funny.
First and foremost, On the Count of Three doesn’t cut any corners. It’s a very honest portrayal of what depression at this stage can and does look like. Kevin (Christopher Abbott) is in a psychiatric hospital due to a suicide attempt just days before, and Val (Jerrod Carmichael) attempts suicide in the bathroom at work, but he’s unsuccessful, leading to the creation of this pact. The differing characterization of these two characters works to the film’s benefit, as Kevin has been failed institutionally since he was young, and Val has been failed socially. They’ve stuck together for as long as they could, and put each other first in their lives, but at a certain point, that can only take you so far.
The quality of this movie really hinges on the two lead performances, and both Abbott and Carmichael are up for the challenge. Abbott has shown since the start of Girls in 2012 that he has great potential, as well as the ability to generate immense empathy thanks to his pure, raw acting. He channels that here, and even though it’s very easy to dislike his character, you also empathize with him, since it feels like he’s never had a chance to succeed. On top of all this, the majority of the comedy comes from Abbott, who’s able to thread that needle well. And Carmichael, who also directed this script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, brings layers to his performance as the more internal and guarded Val. Kevin lost hope a long time ago, so all of his emotions and thoughts are worn right on his sleeve, while Val has recently come to a place where he wants to end it all. Carmichael plays the deep hurt with a glimmer of light quite well, with impressive direction to boot.
Abbott and Carmichael’s performances are also buttressed by a great supporting cast that consists of Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, and Henry Winkler, each of whom are barely more than bit roles. But even still, they each add depth, complexity, emotion, and understanding to the story as a whole as Val’s ex-girlfriend, Val’s long-absent father, and Dr. Brenner, Kevin’s former abusive child psychologist, respectively. The scenes confronting Val’s past, including these characters, do a lot to develop him and his entire mindset. Meanwhile, the main reason that Val and Kevin are waiting until the end of the day to fulfill their pact is so that they can confront Dr. Brenner and shoot him for all the harm he’s caused throughout his life. With this hanging over the entire film, we’re given a lot to think about, past simply the reasons to continue living or not. And their ultimate confrontation sets in motion the crushing denouement, that, regardless of whether you liked the movie, will stick with you. I’m sure it’ll pop up in my mind at random times going forward.
On the Count of Three comes across as brutally honest and raw storytelling. Without knowing the histories of those involved in writing, directing, and performing this story, it still feels like it can only have been made by people who have been this low — or who thought they were this low — at one point in their life. It’s a commentary on masculinity, race, institutional failure, and even gun control, but those are just tertiary ideas. At its heart, it’s about finding a reason to live, accepting the dark, dark realities of life, and accepting responsibility for who you are and what you’ve done.