AAfter the customary red band MPAA warning that only “appropriate audiences” have their approval to watch the following preview, the trailer for Jerrod Carmichael’s new film On the Count of Three has a second, unusual title card. A trigger warning states that the clip contains “subject matter related to mental health and suicide,” then lists contact information for call line and text line support services catering to those at risk. It’s plain to see that studios Annapurna and Orion have taken a cautious approach to the release of the black comedy, and it’s equally plain to see why; in Carmichael’s directorial debut, he also stars as a dead-end sad sack who busts his best friend (Christopher Abbott, American indie cinema’s ace in the hole) out of a mental facility so they can end their lives together, on their own terms.
A buzzy premiere at Sundance in 2021 brought positive reviews and a $2m deal, but Annapurna and Orion shelved the title for nearly a year and a half until the quietly promoted release this past weekend. Any apprehension on their part is understandable, insofar as suicide and public shootings appear to be the last third-rail taboos remaining in an American culture saturated by depictions of violence. On these hot-button topics, the question of responsibility in art turns from a classroom seminar prompt to a high-stakes matter of public safety, though the link between media and real-world action remains a point of ardent debate. The good news for all involved is that Carmichael’s work is sound, keenly aware of a tone that finds the bleak humor in despondence without making light of it. All the same, the film can’t help its place in a delicate conversation about the fraught intersection between aesthetics and content, in which a lack of nuance has and could once again cast a pall over art addressing our harshest realities with due sensitivity.
In a big-picture historical sense, this thicket of live-wire discourse is all Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s fault. His seminal 1774 epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther enumerated the many tribulations of history’s first emo kid, a heartsick artist down so bad for his unattainable crush that he kills himself. An overnight sensation, the book counted among its fans Napoleon Bonaparte and legions of similarly depressed men who saw a kindred in Werther, killing themselves in the earliest documented instances of copycat suicide. The so-called “Werther Effect” has been criticized as a pop-psych rumor by Goethe scholars and scientists alike, but belief in its cultural impact has only strengthened in the interim centuries.
We reserve a special scorn for film and TV seen to glorify suicide as beautiful or empowering, its sins running deeper than mere badness; it’s about actively doing bad, condoning harmful thinking in a presumed audience susceptible to suggestion. Teen weepies go to this well of pathos with less shame than most, the reprehensible All the Bright Places a perfect illustration of the curdled emotional logic at play. The moody Violet has been feeling down over her survivor’s guilt from the car crash that claimed her sister, and snaps out of it in the wake of a fling with the unstable-in-a-hot-way Finch, who underscores the preciousness of life by bringing his own to a premature close. The main offender of recent vintage remains the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, in which a teen’s cassette-tape suicide notes inspire those who wronged her in life to take a look at themselves and improve. Regardless of its potential to spur imitators, this setup endorses the noxious, misguided “you’ll all be sorry when I’m dead” mindset undergirding much suicidal ideation. (Netflix removed a graphic scene from the first-season finale in the wake of swift controversy.)
On the Count of Three would superficially seem to belong to this unsavory tradition, the end result of its to-be-or-not-to-be routine a realization that “it’s a great day to be alive,” as the Travis Tritt song of the same name announces on the soundtrack. But the road to this well-worn insight isn’t quite so trite, starting with the use of that country-western ballad, sung by a urinating coworker as Val (Carmichael) attempts to kill himself. An existentially bruising promotion from shoveler of mulch to overseer of mulch leaves him wondering what it’s all for, but his answer of “nothing” is disrupted by the tinny sound of a pee-stream and pitchy belting of lyrics that might as well be mocking him. . Rather than die under such undignified circumstances, he retrieves Kevin (Abbott) from the institution in which he’s recovering from the latest in a long series of self-destructive episodes. As they tie up loose ends around town over the following day, Val comes to see that he’s not on the same precipice as Kevin, and that his life may be better off fixed than truncated.
A conventional endpoint lands with greater generosity and credibility for the mordant sense of humor in the lead-up to it. Small, humiliating absurdities like the tragicomic bathroom tableau regularly punctuate the film’s gloom, unavoidable when your every action is pregnant with dark significance. Val confronts his abusive absentee father of him, which returns into a fistfight as a novelty “Frankie the Fish” wall plaques warbles its tune in the background. A half-baked plot to take revenge on a predator from Kevin’s childhood goes awry due to scheduling complications and poor logistical planning. A diner breakfast is interrupted by a former high school bully chuckling as he reminisces about the good ol’ days that put Kevin through hell. Screenwriters Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch evince an intimate awareness that in moments of deep misery, every little thing feels like God having a laugh at your expense.
In this respect, the combination of high-proof despair and gallows comedy isn’t contradictory, but rather inevitable. Carmichael’s attunement to this bone-dry comic sensibility speaks to an overall authenticity that makes all the difference, distancing his methods from him from the cheap exploitation of sadness observable in less mature takes on suicide. More than a narrative device, Kevin and Val’s pain reads as a real ailment afflicting real people, and with that accomplished, Val’s eventual change of heart has just as much weight as his despondence from him. If this (or any) film can move a viewer to do something drastic for the better, shouldn’t we accept a corollary capacity to influence for good?