On the Count of Three, 2021.
Directed by Jerrod Carmichael.
Starring Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, and Henry Winkler.
Two guns. Two best friends. And a pact to end their lives when the day is done.
In one of this film’s most memorable scenes, Christopher Abbott’s suicidal Kevin asks his similarly-done-with-life friend Val (Jerrod Carmichael), “Why isn’t America the happiest place on Earth with all the guns we’ve got?”. Beyond its barbed hilarity, the one-liner perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Carmichael’s directorial debut, delivering a damning, beguiling takedown of contemporary American life.
The startling opening image of Carmichael’s film sees Kevin and Val stood a few feet apart with pistols pointed in each other’s faces. They profess their love for one another, count to three, and we cut to black. A gunshot rings out, but the outcome is unknown.
We’re then thrown back to earlier that day, where Kevin is on a psych hold after surviving an overdose suicide attempt. Val meanwhile lives out a dead-end existence (pardon the pun) as a mulch-selling manual worker, and promptly attempts to hang himself in a workplace toilet stall.
After his effort is interrupted by a co-worker, Val pays a visit to Kevin and promptly breaks him out of hospital, whereby they enter a pact to end their lives before day’s end. But they also vow to make the world a better place before taking leave of the planet, by plotting the murder Dr. Brenner (Henry Winkler), a troubling figure from Kevin’s past.
It’s a typically Sundance-y premise and one which could so easily have resulted in an archly cute yet emotionally unpersuasive film, but courtesy of a tonally nimble, crushingly honest script from Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, Abbott and Carmichael are able to mine uncommon truth from the setup.
Male mental health remains a bafflingly stigmatised subject in many circles, which certainly does no favours to helping quell the “toxic masculinity” running rife in society. When Val tells Kevin, “Not waking up tomorrow is the most beautiful thought I’ve had in a long time,” it’s difficult not to picture the statistics of young male suicide and consider how much more we as a people could and should be doing.
Dark comedy has always been a rich well from which to examine difficult-to-discuss social topics, and the blacker-than-black humour on offer here crowbars open a vital yet entertaining dialogue about not only mental health and masculinity but also but race, gun control, and the general miasma of America today.
After impulsively holding up a convenience store, Kevin incredulously asks Val, “How are guns legal!?”, while insisting that people don’t need zoloft when a gun in the hand can be so empowering. It is, of course, a statement blanketed in a thick layer of irony, Carmichael’s film taking America’s ease-of-access to guns to task with acid-tongued indignation.
Val meanwhile calls school shooters, “corny white boys who couldn’t get any pussy,” underlining the film’s wider commentary on what being a man means in the present. As Kevin screams his heart out to Papa Roach’s nu-metal classic “Last Resort” in one unforgettable scene – surely the best cinematic invocation of the song you’re ever likely to witness – it’s easy to see these men for what they are: emotionally stunted by the cruel hands life has dealt them.
The Papa Roach singalong is an inherently funny moment, but the abundance of heightened comedy doesn’t deny the film the opportunity to confront real-world issues in a tangible way.
It’s a delicate tonal balance, but Carmichael gets down in the weeds with his damaged characters, using humour to accentuate the grim unspoken truths of their lives. Crucially, he also doesn’t let them off the hook for their acts – which are at best merely felonious and later much, much worse.
Yet what resolutely brings this story to life is its two perfectly-matched leads. Abbott, one of the finest rising actors of his generation, makes Kevin a powder keg of impotent rage screaming into the careless void, while also proving himself a canny comic performer through his deliciously deadpan one-liner delivery.
And Carmichael matches him every step of the way, getting the lion’s share of the film’s more pointedly Funny lines, yet also wearing Val’s traumas and anxieties on his own world-weary face.
The supporting cast sings, too; J.B. Smoove is diverting in an against-type role as Val’s deadbeat dad, and he nails it. Elsewhere Tiffany Haddish shows up for a brief-but-amusing cameo as Val’s girlfriend, and Henry Winkler is inspired casting for Kevin’s doctor with whom he shares a dark history.
Though shooting with a seemingly unfussy observationalism as befits the emotional truth he seeks to explore, Carmichael nevertheless proves himself a natural actor’s director, letting even the most basic scenes breathe – despite the 84-minute runtime – rather than having himself and Abott just breathlessly rattle through the dialogue. Superbly motivated editing from Oscar nominee Tom Eagles (Jojo Rabbit) also ensures both the drama and comedy land with the necessary punch.
Jerrod Carmichael’s fierce directorial debut skewers the modern American experience with equal parts heart and grim hilarity, aided by superb performances from himself and Christopher Abbott.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.