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Sundance 2021: On the Count of Three

Premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2021 and scooping the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award is the bold but raw feature debut from comedian Jerrod Carmichael, who’s previous stand-up and TV specials have been met with critical acclaim. The dark comedy come buddy road trip is undoubtedly one of the festival darlings, thanks to the impressive ensemble cast and emotionally compelling portrayal of mental health, which is approached with sensitivity. I do feel the need to point out a potentially triggering subject, as the film broaches the topic of suicide heavily throughout.

Directed by Jerrod Carmichael, On the Count of Three centres on two lifelong friends, Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) who’s despair and hopelessness with their own lives leads them to make a joint suicide pact. But before they do the deed, they both have some unfinished business to take care of and since it’s their supposed last day on Earth, they set out to right a number of wrongs and settle old scores.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams.

Opening with a shocking sequence of the two friends pointing a gun at each other’s heads and counting down to the deed, On the Count of Three instantly pulls you in with a gripping and suspenseful cut to black. Cleverly using the ‘one last day’ narrative, Carmichael rewinds to earlier in the day, taking us on a bittersweet trip down memory lane with the two leads as they tie up loose ends, ingeniously revealing glimpses into their respective pasts throughout. With a brisk runtime, events hurtle by at breakneck speed, complete with twists and turns, with easy comparisons to the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time.

Featuring a hugely witty script from Ryan Welch and Ari Fletcher, the duo bring a number of brilliantly tongue in cheek moments such as the irony of Kevin’s unease of using a gun with his political leaning and ironically listening to Papa Roach’s ‘Last Resort’ to events. There’s even a number of laugh-out-loud moments, particularly as the two attempt to practice their (awful!) aim at a gun range and Val notes how cool Kevin looks by tucking his gun into the waistband of his trousers. However there’s a certain uneven tone as Carmichael struggles to balance the dark comedy with the drama and pathos, with events often straying more into the bleaker moments. Key scenes such as Val visiting his estranged abusive father and Kevin attempting to settle a score with his predatory childhood therapist are sandwiched between meandering scenes.

This is scrappy indie filmmaking with a whole lot of heart, as the two embark on a rare open and frank discussion about men’s mental health not really seen on screen before. Both share a sense of hopelessness from life, discussing their struggles sensitively and without shame. Humour aside, this a hugely emotional watch thanks in part to the struggle of the brilliantly developed and relatable characters. Carmichael does well to deftly explore weighty issues such as mental health, sexual abuse, constrains/pressures of the modern 9-5 life and gun issues in America in a bold and compelling way.

Both share a sense of hopelessness from life, discussing their struggles sensitively and without shame

Both leads wonderfully carry the film with a hugely dynamic chemistry, and the tender brotherly relationship feels authentic thanks to their committed performances and hilarious but affectionate teasing. Indie King Abbot is on top form, impressively conveying a heartbreaking pain and frustration with life. Revelations throughout the film tie up with key pieces of dialogue sprinkled throughout, (“it hurts to be ignored”) hinting at years of bullying and unhelpful therapy. Carmichael’s Val is perhaps the more relatable of the two, debating his worth with a dead end job and directionless relationship. Cameos from Henry Winkler, Tiffany Haddish and JB Smoove also help bolster the star power.

Throughout the frenetic road trip there’s a certain beautiful stillness in certain scenes, particularly as the two revisit the highs of their youth in a wonderfully shot dirt bike race. There’s a certain gritty and muted style to Marshall Adams’s cinematography which lends an air of authenticity to events. A hugely tense and well choreographed Bonnie and Clyde-esque police chase leads to a truly emotional climax which, although shocking, works thanks to the layered performances by the leads.

Verdict

On the Count of Three is an emotional and ambitious, but at times uneven, directorial debut from Jerrod Carmichael. Although there’s an air of predictability to the conclusion, the outstanding central performances give precedence to a hugely impactful message, stressing that despite how hard it can be at times, life is worth living.

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