Christopher Abbott costars with the director in one of the hottest Sundance titles of the year. It delivers.

By Leah Greenblatt
January 30, 2021 at 11:02 AM EST

"When you're a kid, they tell you the worst thing in life is to be a quitter," Val (Jerrod Carmichael) marvels to his best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott) in one of On the Count of Three's earliest scenes. "Why? Quitting is amazing! It means you no longer have to do a thing you hate."

He's talking about his job at some kind of landscape supply store — his excitable boss has just laid out a bright future for him in gravel and topsoil — but what he really wants to quit, in fact, is life. Kevin is already way ahead of him; he's just spent the weekend in a mental-health facility after swallowing a fistful of pills. Val comes to break him out, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest style; and once they're safely free, floats the idea of a more permanent solution: a suicide pact right there.

If Kevin agreed on the spot, On the Count of Three (which premiered Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival) would be over before the title card. Instead, he asks for one last day to wrap up whatever business they've got left, and the movie settles into the blackest kind of buddy comedy — a lacerating slice of nihilism rooted in real despair, and real I-love-you-man tenderness too.  

That kind of funny is pretty much Carmichael's brand, though the actor and stand-up comic has never put it on screen quite like he does in Three, his feature-directing debut. Shot in intimate 35mm, the whole thing is almost shockingly short (just over 80 minutes), and the style sort of poetically raw, like an old Jim Jarmusch movie. (If these two guys get to heaven, it probably won't look much like this wintry parade of strip-club side alleys, bland office parks, and convenience stores.)

The plot by nature is mostly episodic too; nimble, jittery jumps from scene to scene. But Carmichael makes nearly all of them count: Abbott's Kevin — in a puffer coat, sweatpants, and the bleached-blond curls of a depressed Justin Timberlake — is painted right away as the guy pretty much made of feelings; everything touches him like a raw nerve.  Val is the opposite: numb to the girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) who keeps leaving unanswered calls, the manager who wants to promote him, the whole world he swears he can hardly care enough to stand. "Not waking up tomorrow," he confesses. "Is the most beautiful thought I've had in a long time."

But he agrees (mostly because he has to) to Kevin's proposition — which involves, among other things, French fries, dirt bikes, and a final visit with the therapist (Henry Winkler) who did anything but heal him as a kid. That also leaves time to pursue his own closure with his estranged dad (J.B. Smoove) and maybe even his girl. And to ponder more than once whether either of them are truly ready to stick with the mutual-destruction plan.

The script, by Ari Katch and Ryan Welch (both cocreators of Hulu's Emmy-winning dramedy Ramy) is steeped in a sort of slouchy Millennial wit, both ruthless and almost pathologically detached. But Val and Kevin aren't just cool-kid vessels of 21st-century apathy; they're weird and funny and vulnerable and sad. And even as the story picks up speed and velocity, their choices rattling inevitably towards a climax neither can walk back from, Three supplies its own sideways version of the thing that's eluded its two leads for too long: hope, and a reason to care. Grade: A–

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