“On the Count of Three” opens on the dejected eyes of Kevin (Christopher Abbott), a thirty-something who is pointing a gun at his best friend Val (Jerrod Carmichael), who in turn also aims a lethal weapon back at him. Even though the film will get increasingly out of control, that initial shot of Kevin’s despondent gaze, voicelessly expressing his emotional exhaustion, lingers as its most essential.
This tense prologue isn’t the climax of a confrontation between two men. They have agreed to shoot one another in the head, to commit suicide in tandem, abandoning this world at once. A last-second change of heart ruins Val’s impromptu plan one early morning outside of a strip club. Kevin’s hesitation to shoot, an act of selfless love of which he is capable even if trapped in his own self-destruction, may have given his brother in hopelessness a second chance. Val agrees to “enjoy” one more day before calling it quits on life.
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Convinced these are their final hours above ground, the two begin a road trip headed toward the end, a conclusion seemingly of their own volition but derived from haunting trauma, with multiple spontaneous stops to obtain retribution from those they deem responsible for their pain. Overflowing with a chaotic truthfulness about the human condition’s bleakest shadows, the film finds pitch-dark hilarity in the absurd realizations they have after making this pact. Carmichael directs for the first time in a double-duty showcase expanding our perception of his talent.
There’s a morbid gleefulness to Kevin’s outlook early in the ordeal. His demeanor reflects a sense of liberation obtained from believing his suffering is nearly over. He won’t have to return to the mental institution where they couldn’t help him anyway. Sundance Award-winning writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch present Kevin as someone with decades of psychological torment, which puts Val’s afflictions—a rocky romantic relationship and a job he despises—into perspective. And yet, though we understand that their reasonings for wanting to die aren’t comparable, their desperation is the same. And they both gravitate to a violent “solution.” The portrayal of these subtleties is at the core of how “On the Count of Three” discusses men’s mental health in a manner that feels rich and true.
For example, Kevin’s bright hair highlights and colorfully disheveled clothing place him as someone holding on to his rebellious adolescence. That he casually pulls out his iPod Nano, an artifact that immediately dates him, speaks of an arrested maturity. Even more so that he chooses to play Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” as an on-the-nose anthem matching the state of his psyche. Kevin is the picture of white millennial anxiety forever stuck in the early 2000s, but also a guilt-ridden liberal hyper-aware of how his actions or the things he says can be interpreted based on his privilege.
All of those elements come alive in Abbott’s ostentatious interpretation of the conflicted individual, a mentally embattled person with a righteous chip on his shoulder given the unfairness of his childhood, but who isn’t entirely unsympathetic to those around him. Alongside his title role in “James White,” another independent feature where a young man battles inner turbulence of a different type, this stands as one of Abbott’s most remarkable performances, rendered so indelible in its erratic kookiness and outburst of guarded earnestness because it plays opposite Carmichael’s more restrained unraveling.
“It’s like your sad looking eyes got purpose all of a sudden,” Val tells Kevin while on an elevator ascending to what the latter hopes will be a fateful reckoning for a major villain from his past. Later, Val meets with a quarrelsome figure of his own: his girlfriend, and future mother of his child, Nat (played by a marvelously stern Tiffany Haddish).
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