Officially a production of the Covid era—the end credits include such novel crew positions as “Covid compliance officer” and “Covid p.a.”—On the Count of Three plays like a despairing, vaguely comedic twist on more than half-century-old race relations films such as The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night, in which circumstances forced white and black characters to collaborate against their wills. In the directorial debut of Jerrod Carmichael, whose stand-up work and TV specials have reliably provided blunt and comic diagnoses of race and class issues, there is a sense of the more things change, the more things remain the same, as this scrappy, hectic, unfunny farce provides the backdrop for a quick, down-and-dirty look at desperation in the under-class.
The opening scene grabs you by the lapels. Black Val (Carmichael) and white Kevin (Christopher Abbott) point guns at each other, profess their mutual love, then count to three with the arranged objective of simultaneously killing one another. Does this technique come highly recommended for double suicides? It’s meant to be a mutual mercy killing by best buds, but of course it doesn’t quite go as planned.
More than that, is it supposed to be funny? The absurdity of their failed attempt would seem to indicate that the filmmakers are attempting a very dark comedy steeped in dire societal realities, but even at the outset you can tell what the film is trying to do while sensing a shortcoming in the execution, so to speak.
This is not the guys’ first such effort and further botched suicide attempts fail as well, to the point that one suspects that screenwriters Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch (co-creators and writer of TV’s Ramy) might have been aiming for the bleakly comic tone of something like the British classic The Ladykillers as seen through present realities.
But with the latent humor refusing to fully bloom, what one is left with is a largely dead-serious film, with the emphasis on dead. “Not waking up tomorrow is the most beautiful thought I’ve had in a long time,” Val says. “We’ll do it right and we’ll do it together.” But then Kevin says he needs one more day to take care of some vital business, with the hopeful promise that “Today we get to do whatever we want without consequences.”
Had the film played that string out with several more degrees of ambition (and re-writing), turning it into an extreme dark comedy with grave intentions, Carmichael, Katcher and Welch might really have been onto something. In the event, however, certain aspects of the story become less than convincing, to put it mildly, just as the tone feels increasingly uncertain as the piece walks a wobbly line between very dark comedy and absolute seriousness as to the men’s predicament; it doesn’t take long for the jocular side to essentially disappear altogether. On the day the guys are to die, they instead go to a gun range, where Kevin can’t even hit the target. “You’ve got the opposite of God-given talent,” Val remarks, which may be Kevin’s problem in a nutshell.
Dramatically, plenty of timely and weighty issues get an airing, or at least a reference, and the film never misses an opportunity to point out and stress the inequities, misunderstandings, frustrations and plain truths that both lie in plain sight or are sometimes hidden beneath the surface of everyday transactions.
After a certain point, the men’s screw-ups, particularly on the part of Kevin, become tiresome, then shockingly pathetic. If, as planned, this is to be their last day on Earth, make something of it, like Thelma and Louise, for example. What the writers come up with instead seem rather arbitrary, out of left field.
That said, On the Count of Three, which runs a threadbare 76 minutes not including end titles, does bore down on the nitty gritty of racial matters to a considerable degree. The hot-button issues of class financial disparity and racial divides immediately put an intense spotlight on a little film that not for a minute loses track of its raison d’etre, even if Carmichael’s directorial skills are far from what were needed to massage, shape and sharpen this combustible material into a powerfully coherent take on the state of the union.
The narrative makes an entirely unanticipated detour when Kevin stops to avenge a childhood trauma involving a creepy therapist played by Henry Winkler—if things hadn’t stopped being funny much earlier, they would have at this point—and the very short film concludes in a way that promises little and lets no one off the hook.
Despite its abundant artistic shortcomings, On the Count of Three connects on strictly emotional and sociological levels with feelings of despair and pointlessness in ways that could easily attract a following and thereby become a part of the much larger socio-political conversation about economics, class and race that’s been growing over the past year or more. More than that, it demonstrates the old truth that where there’s a will there’s a way. The filmmakers had a lot on their minds and enterprisingly found a way to build themselves a platform. This is scrappy indie filmmaking in a pristine state.
On the Count of Three is playing in the U.S. Dramatic section of the Sundance Film Festival. World premiere. Running time: 84 minutes. Sales agent: UTA.