Sundance 2021, part 4: ‘On the Count of Three’ and ‘Prime Time’

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This is the fourth piece in the Sundance Film Festival 2021 series by Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp. Follow along for coverage of films from Sundance’s reimagined virtual festival.

This article includes discussions of suicide and gun violence that may be troubling to some readers.

Two films from this year’s Sundance slate, one in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and the other in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, utilized firearms as a motif in vastly different ways, cinematically reappropriating the gun as a method through which to explore the complexities, anxieties and liberating qualities of kinship under dire circumstances. This, of course, is no easy task, especially given the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. Nonetheless, each film takes a highly fraught object and instead reappropriates it to stimulate thought-provoking conversations around life rather than grief and trauma. 

In Polish filmmaker Jakub Piątek’s feature debut “Prime Time” (co-written by Piątek and Lukasz Czapski), a lone 20-year-old man named Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia) enters a TV production studio at the turn of the millennium on December 31, 1999. Then, he begins taking hostages with his gun, demanding to read a statement on live television when the entirety of Poland is expected to be watching the New Year’s Eve broadcast. A hostage situation rapidly ensues and composes the majority of the film, which is situated firmly in an era when television, specifically state media, was the primary medium for widespread nationwide communication. “Prime Time” is a fascinating character study of people from very different circumstances in which prominent TV presenter Mira (Magdalena Popławska) and a security guard (Andrzej Kłak) develop an intimate sense of Stockholm Syndrome toward Sebastian. 

Piątek’s film is more about the journey than the outcome, and the same could be said for Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut “On the Count of Three” (written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch). The film bears the tagline, “Two guns. Two best friends. And a pact to end their lives when the day is done.” Its plot is premised on a single day and a suicide pact between best friends Val (Jerrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), the latter of whom was just released from prison. After putting off the pact in the morning, they decide to spend one more day living it up together. “On the Count of Three” could easily slip into tumultuously dark territory given the script’s textual contents, but with highly compelling and surprisingly humorous performances from both Carmichael and Abbott, the film stays on course as a meditation on brotherhood and our material conditions. While the film consists primarily of Val and Kevin’s wild day, it also delightfully features Tiffany Haddish as Val’s girlfriend Natasha and Henry Winkler as Kevin’s apparently sadistic childhood psychotherapist Dr. Brenner.

In “Prime Time,” Sebastian is on a mission to state his truth — but also perform. The viewer never discovers the underlying motive behind Sebastian’s actions, which are construed as some sort of response to unjust and oppressive conditions in Polish society. However, the hostage situation reveals much more about the characters in the studio than it ever could have under everyday circumstances. At one point, Sebastian and his two hostages have a raucous dance party, rollicking and romping in liberating ways. The hostage situation thus becomes a convergence of people in an ephemeral moment, sharing in a freedom not otherwise afforded to them. Ironically, the constrained environment allows the three to perform in unconstrained ways, which is particularly liberating for Mira, who we learn wanted to be an actor and was never able to follow through on her dream after attending theater school. The hostage situation allows her to perform in a way that the outside world never permitted her to as she lets loose on a phone call by performing the role of a distressed captive. She cries out for help while caught up in the thrill of the moment, a certain glee washing over her.

Likewise, in “On the Count of Three,” Val and Kevin must decide what to do and what’s out of bounds, categories that are predicated upon the decision to end their lives at the end of the day. Insisting that he won’t be around to face the repercussions, Kevin wants to end the life of Dr. Brenner but grows insecure, and over the course of the day Val and Kevin’s passion for life actually returns. Under their looming deadline not yet set in stone, “On the Count of Three” becomes a deeply existential play over the decisions one makes and having to live with them — or not. Like Piątek, Carmichael subverts the firearm as a symbol of death, instead using it to prod both the intangible and embodied experiences of life.

Due to its singular setting and much slower pace, “Prime Time” feels far longer than the brisk 84-minute “On the Count of Three,” despite being only 93 minutes in length. Ultimately, “On the Count of Three” more effectively harnesses the complexities of its thematic material while the former stews in the ambiguities of the hostage situation with no particularly satisfying resolution. Tellingly, “On the Count of Three” was the winner of the U.S. Dramatic Screenwriting Award — a prize well deserved. Annapurna Pictures and MGM’s Orion Pictures will distribute the film in the United States. Especially for films by first-time feature directors, both “Prime Time” and “On the Count of Three” are two of Sundance 2021’s most unique and ambitious cinematic achievements.

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Olivia Popp previously served as Managing Editor of Arts & Life for two years and is a former Editor-at-Large for the Daily's Board of Directors. Find her online at itsoliviapopp.com and on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.