WARNING: This review and film discuss suicide and mental health issues.
Depression can conjure an overwhelming cloud of dread upon its inhabitants. My personal struggles with depression and anxiety have often felt debilitating, with every misstep and cruel twist of fate reinforcing a feeling of malaise that often seems inescapable. While mental health awareness gains recognition in art and public consciousness today, many sources still misunderstand its complexities.
Comedian turned writer/director Jerrod Carmichael tackles mental health head-on in his debut feature, On the Count of Three. The film, which follows two friends who decide to indulge in one last day before ending it all, is one of the final offshoots of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. I was lucky enough to watch the film twice during its festival run. Despite my intentions to review the film last January, each attempt at encapsulating the film’s impacts seemed to slip my grasp with each keystroke.
An additional viewing and a year and a half of introspection later, On the Count of Three still shakes me to my core. Carmichael’s concept is undoubtedly bleak and challenging in a world where suicide and mental health concerns are exploding at an incendiary rate. Suicide is also a subject that several other cinematic offerings fumble in poor taste, whether by glorifying its lingering ramifications (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why) or utilizing self-inflicted killings as a point of maudlin manipulation (Dear Evan Hansen).
Thankfully, Carmichael approaches the volatile topic with insight and proper care. From the onset, the overbearing dread facing our depressed protagonist Val and his manically bipolar best friend Kevin is deeply-felt in every frame of their wayward journey. Both broken souls forge a friendship melded in the fiery inferno of abuse and hopelessness. It’s a deeply lived-in rapport, with Val and Kevin acting as supportive pillars for each other in a world that’s constantly tearing them down.
While they’ve reached a state of internal burnout, that doesn’t mean their final escapades are entirely joyless affairs. It would be easy for On the Count of Three to feel overwhelmingly bleak. However, Carmichael exhibits a skilled touch in infusing a light of hope at the end of the tunnel. Seeing Val and Kevin reminiscing through their old stomping grounds or BMXing around the familiar dirt path reflects the true comfort they find each other. The sparse moments of warm sentimentality conjure just how much impact a little positive reinforcement can have.
Carmichael also incorporates darkly comedic infusions into On the Count of Three’s premise – a decision that could be incredibly combustible in the wrong hands. Instead, Carmichael marries the dissident tonalities in a savvy manner. Creative wrinkles like the usage of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and even the obscure fillet fish from bygone McDonald’s commercials never feel senseless – often expressing the film’s emotional conditions with a deft perspective and ironic bite. The comedian’s directorial debut showcases remarkable poise, ranging from bits of visceral rage to poetic melancholy in a way few could effectively balance.
Val and Kevin’s camaraderie wouldn’t work the same without skilled performers. Lugging around in an emotionally withdrawn state, Carmichael conveys Val’s insular struggles and lingering detachment through his effectively subdued cadence. In stark contrast, Christopher Abbott aggressively grabs viewers’ attention as Kevin. Abbott continues displaying raw dedication and emotionality as a performer, encapsulating Kevin’s mania while still honing the character in a candid place with compelling nuances.
The duo’s opposing styles serve as a fitting canvas for the different spectrums of mental health struggles, whether the temporary hold of depressive forces or the life-long battle with mental health issues. Each facet of the creative process explores On the Count of Three‘s dichotomy with rare honesty and empathy onscreen. I found myself shaken at several revelations throughout the narrative, but those disturbing blimps never express false platitudes or sensationalize genuine struggles.
On the Count of Three does boast some imperfections. The airtight 86-minute runtime can rob the experience of some of its intriguing wrinkles, particularly with a third act that rushes to a finale that’s a bit too clean and simplistic considering what proceeds it. Nevertheless, Carmichael and company still deserve ample praise for what Count of Three achieves.
Equally provocative and profound, On the Count of Three tackles an often ignored conversation with the gravity it deserves. I can’t say I’m surprised the film is quietly coming out of release purgatory, but I hope it eventually finds an agreeable audience.
On the Count of Three is now playing in select theaters and on VOD services.
Mental health resources: https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/mental-health-resources/
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