Content Warning: This article discusses suicide and childhood abuse. Please read at your own discretion. It also contains minor spoilers for On the Count of Three (2021).
Mysterious Skin is one of the most disturbing and deadly serious films to ever grace movie theater screens. The 2004 film, rated NC-17 by the MPA, tells the story of the lasting effects of childhood abuse on two young men played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet. It’s an incredibly hard-to-watch film that you see once and never again. Director Gregg Araki, most known for his work as part of the New Queer Cinema movement, handles the sensitive topic with care but isn’t afraid to show how devastating abuse can be for victims.
Seventeen years later, another film about two young men dealing with abuse trauma premiered at the remote-only Sundance 2021. This film also thoughtfully treats the delicate subject matter, but unlike Mysterious Skin, it’s hilarious. On the Count of Three, the new dark comedy directed by Jerrod Carmichael and written by Ramy’s Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, tells the story of two men, played by Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott, who spend their last day together after making a suicide pact.
Despite its distinctly unfunny premise, On the Count of Three manages to find humor in the most unexpected places. With the film premiering in theaters and on-demand, let’s talk about how and why it looks for the levity hidden within depression, abuse, and trauma.
On the Count of Three: Light in the Dark
One of the funniest moments of the whole film features Jerrod Carmichael’s character, Val, berating his best friend Kevin, played by Christopher Abbott, for playing the truly awful nu-metal suicide anthem “Last Resort” over the car stereo. In a genuinely impassioned monologue, Val goes off on Kevin, saying:
“You can’t listen to music that exactly describes the emotional thing you’re going through, y’know how cheesy that is? I don’t listen to Alanis Morissette when I’m going through a breakup and I’m not listening to Papa f***ing Roach on the day I’m gonna kill myself.”
This perfectly encapsulates the movie’s sense of humor. The film finds absurdity in the surprising mundanity of killing yourself. The over-the-top emotions within the Papa Roach song are contrasted with the reality of committing suicide. It’s not a romantic act like how it’s portrayed in so much media, and On the Count of Three goes to great pains to show that, often through humor.
On the Count of Three: Handle with Care
On the Count of Three has the difficult task of eliciting laughter from the audience while also being sensitive to the struggles its characters go through. The film accomplishes this by giving the necessary weight to its heavy themes. The movie’s trailer establishes this immediately, starting with a warning about its contents and information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the Crisis Text Line (text TALK to 741741). While its inclusion is likely due to legal liability, it’s still a nice touch.
The movie itself always balances its humor with dramatic stretches without comedy. The actors do an incredible job dynamically switching between comedy and drama while the team behind the camera artfully navigates the potentially tricky terrain. The incredible score from Owen Pallett is great at setting the mood in particular. Jokes are also never used to trivialize what’s happening in the film, instead being employed to show how the characters deal with their trauma and depression.
On the Count of Three: Tragedy Plus Time
Humor is one of the most commonly employed coping mechanisms in dealing with different forms of mental illness. Jokes about sensitive subjects like suicide and abuse can often come off as crass and inappropriate. However, when it comes from someone affected by those issues, it can be therapeutic for the person behind the joke and the audience.
In an article from the online magazine Inverse, the director of the Humor Research Lab, Peter McGraw, says,”‘[t]he things that are bad in our life can also be good fodder for comedy…[t]he act of making jokes is about transforming these violations and transforming them into something that is laugh-worthy. It allows us the opportunity to see situations differently.’” Finding humor in the darkest recesses of the human experience can help us deal with trauma while laughing.
On the Count of Three is a prime example of the power of comedy as a method to connect with others and process the worst things we go through as people. If done with care, On the Count of Three shows that a film about a suicide pact based on shared childhood abuse can be hilarious. Similarly, the movie perfectly demonstrates how art can use humor to more deeply explore trauma and its effects.
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