A suicide pact between two depressed men is the basis of Jerrod Carmichael’s off-kilter comedy

On The Count Of three

Source: Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘On The Count Of Three’

Dir: Jerrod Carmichael. USA. 2020. 87 mins

Two friends at rock bottom, played by Christopher Abbott and director Jerrod Carmichael, strike a suicide pact, but decide to spend one final day together before they pull the trigger on the agreement. What follows is an aimless round of score-settling, punctuated by moments of astringently revealing tragicomic dialogue. It’s less a bromance, more a consensual bro each other’s heads off kind of deal.

A bold debut which establishes Carmichael as a director to watch

While the premise of the feature debut from actor and comedian Carmichael might seem crass for a comedy, there’s an unexpected soulfulness in the execution. This is not a film which minimises the pain of depression or the impulse to end it all. Bruises, both physical and mental, are on show throughout. It’s an approach which might come at the expense of some of the humour – the comedy evokes bittersweet grimaces rather than belly laughs – but does make for a satisfying study of male friendship.

Carmichael’s profile as a comedian will be a selling point for this meandering indie, as will the involvement of Abbott, who, following his slippery performance in last year’s Possessor, is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing and versatile acting talents currently working. The film should go on to achieve a healthy festival run, and will likely appeal to streaming platforms and indie distributors. Ultimately, the film’s willingness to confront the darkest of dark places might limit its breakthrough potential, but it’s a bold debut which establishes Carmichael as a director to watch.

Abbott plays Kevin, peroxided and wounded and, at the start of the film, hospitalised following a recent suicide attempt. His is the kind of depression which floods through him in power surges of anger, making it tricky to convince the doctor that he is no longer a risk to himself. All clenched muscles and forced positivity, he claims to feel bad about taking up a room when someone else might need it more. She isn’t buying it. His mask drops. “Why are you so obsessed with keeping everyone alive?” He argues that anyone who spent more than a minute in his head would realise that all life is not, in fact, precious.

Val (Carmichael) smokes his first cigarette of the day when he is barely awake, his hunched shoulders silhouetted against the oily light of another inevitable morning. On the soundtrack, the rippling perkiness of ‘Love You’ by The Free Design is a counterintuitive choice but an interesting one. It feels almost as if the music is mocking him. Stony faced, Val goes through the motions at his job; it’s the news of a promotion, which places him in charge of mulch and gravel, which pushes him over the edge. There’s a bleak absurdity to a scene in the company bathroom in which Val fashions a makeshift noose, while outside his chipper colleague sings Travis Tritt’s ’It’s A Great Day To Be Alive’. Carmichael has a knack for passive aggressive music choices.

A more obvious film would have shown the friends’ final day as a riot of hedonism and hilarity resulting in a rekindled love of life. But Carmichael is at pains not to depict depression as something that can be ‘cured’ by just getting out there and having some fun. Instead, he excavates the buried traumas in both lives, solidifying the bond which links these men. But throughout, or at least until a slight ragged ending, there’s a careful balance between the pain, and the spikes of humour and release. The effect of being in possession of a gun on the hitherto firearm-phobic Kevin is a particularly rich source of comedy.

The picture’s ending might be divisive: suicide, whether or not it is successful, is an understandably charged subject. But it’s fair to say that this is a film which is not lacking the courage of its convictions.

Production company: Valparaiso Pictures, Werner Entertainment

International Sales: UTA Independent Film Group schwartz-wrightm@unitedtalent.com

Producers: David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Tom Werner, Jake Densen, Ari Katcher, Jimmy Price

Screenplay: Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch

Editing: Tom Eagles

Cinematography: Marshall Adams

Music: Owen Pallett

Main cast: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford