It’s not every day you see a movie about a suicide pact. No matter how you look at it, if a suicide pact is the foundation of your film, you’re going to be in for a rough ride. There really are only two ways out, one, the most predictable, in which the participants back out because they’ve somehow had an epiphany, or, two, they actually go through with it. The first would feel manipulative and predictable, the second morosely depressing, which begs the question, where can you really go with this premise that will leave the audience satisfied with the journey they’ve taken? Such is the question that is asked of director Jerrod Carmichael in his directorial debut, On the Count of Three, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
Carmichael, along with screenwriters Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, who are also making their feature film debuts, approaches the challenge with gusto, and armed with a pair of actors who could believably pull it off in Christopher Abbott and Carmichael himself, who co-star in the film. Abbott and Carmichael play best friends Kevin and Val, who have made a pact to kill each other, as the film opens with each pointing a gun at each other’s head and counting to three. The film then flashes back hours earlier, and we get to see how they get to this pivotal moment.
A film about the single worst day in someone’s life is one thing, but a movie about two characters who have defined the same day to be their last worst day is ripe with potential, both emotionally and narratively. Unlike an end-of-the-world scenario, a suicide pact is a catastrophic ending that you decidedly choose to embrace, and, at the same time, it’s one you can also choose to back out of at any moment. So, as we spend time with Val and Kevin, and get to know them, we, as an audience, can’t help but root for them to opt out of their final solution, yet we are, at the same time, hideously attracted to their march towards finality, as this built-in tension provides an underlying anxiety, sense of impending doom and a strange freedom that is almost cathartic. How are they going to get out of this? Who will back down first? What will happen that sends their plan awry? They won’t really go through with it, will they? The questions race through our heads as the stakes grow larger and larger, drawing us in.
The problem is, there is just no easy way out of the film’s initial conundrum. The only way to get the audience on your side is to make us hate the characters and wish for them to just go away, but the opposite happens here. Abbott and Carmichael are both savagely appealing, creating massively flawed characters with dimension, texture, and self-effacing charm. Though decidedly not a comedy, there are some very darkly comic moments, most of them courtesy of Abbott’s quirky character traits that he bakes into his otherwise depressive and despondent character. The fact that his character is a rabid anti-gun activist is just perfection.
But, in the end, there needs to be an end and the route these characters navigate to get there goes a bit off course halfway through the film, leaving an ending just as unsatisfactory as you would expect. However, given that, the journey along the way allows us to spend time with these characters who are inherently appealing, juxtaposed perfectly in their personalities, bonded in their friendship and tormented by their fates. Abbott and Carmichael’s performances save On the Count of Three from being an overly morose philosophical lecture, but it just can’t get out of its own way and gets lost in its own quixotic journey.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.