Jerrod Carmichal is a quietly compelling presence in his directorial debut, ON THE COUNT OF THREE. As Val, half of a suicidal duo out to make the last day of their lives count for something, or at least to make it a day less depressing than the ones that have so far rounded out their lives, he plays stoic irony against the relieved resignation of a man who has made up his mind about what the next logical step should be. Soft-spoken for the most part, there is never a moment when the profound undercurrents of his emotional turmoil are not palpably present. It’s a performance that seems simple, until you realize just how many layers Carmichal is shrewdly revealing at every stop he and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) make revisiting their past before snuffing out their future. And how seamlessly he integrates them all.
The plan, as we learn in the opening moments, is for the lifelong friends to shoot each other on the eponymous count. How they got there is revealed in flashback to earlier that day. Kevin in therapy at a state facility after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, is railing against a medical profession that can’t help him after several decades of trying. His tirade includes the salient question of the film. Is every life worth saving? As for Val, he has just been promoted by his clueless boss from selling mulch to overseeing it, leading to his own unsuccessful suicide attempt in the company bathroom. That failure prompts him to break Kevin out of his mandated psychiatric hold so that, as a team, they can succeed where each has individually failed. Instead of taking care of business right away, though, Kevin persuades Val to have one last day in which there is no anxiety about the future, and no consequences for the present.
For Kevin, it’s a pig-out at his favorite greasy-spoon as Val looks on with bland disdain. Slowly, though, the full implications that this state of absolute freedom in which they find themselves dawns on them, leading to plans of various degrees of righteousness for evening scores and doing the world one last favor as a parting gift. That the bond between these two as played by these two actors is so strong, that their affection for one another is so deep and so unconditional, that their inability to heal one another, much less themselves, is so absolute creates a dynamic that makes their decisions all the more heartrending. Even as their antics in the face of their new freedom is so exhilarating.
There is nothing showy about the exposition that fills in the troubled lives these men have had. It’s as straightforward as Carmichal’s direction, that keeps the focus on externalizing the pain these men have learned to conceal even as it eats them up from the inside. It’s why Kevin can give a friendly fist-bump and a smile to the bully who tormented him in high-school while Abbott, with sad eyes and tense face, conveys what Kevin is really feeling, the anger and the sense of worthlessness that manifests as suicidal violence turned on himself. It is an intense, aching moment that hearkens back directly to that question he directed to the psychiatrist assigned to him, about if all lives are worth saving, and it answers it, at least from his perspective with a finality that nothing short of unconsciousness, permanent or temporary, can alter.
The course of one day changing paradigms forever is an honored storytelling trope, but ON THE COUNT OF THREE delves into that premise’s possibilities with sensitive insight and a vigorous curiosity about where it can lead. The result is a melancholy descant of a film that separates the horrors of life from the hopeless numbness that they engender, where snatched moments of joy have never been more of a relief. Billed as a dark comedy, it is judicious in its use of light-hearted elements. This is a film about pain and hope, and what happens when the proportions are skewed. Don’t expect easy answers, only a few inevitable ones. And by the time the credits roll, you will be happy that the filmmakers didn’t choose the easy way out.