Coup! – Review

Coup There is nothing subtle about Joseph Schuman and Austin Stark’s Coup! The opening voiceover, complete with commentary about total lockdown, an errant president and the poor dying in their thousands whilst the rich flock to their country estates, firmly establishes the satirical tone that never quite leaves the film. There’s even an archival image of a sign saying “Wear a mask or face jail” for good measure.

But this isn’t a Corona-film. No, Schuman and Stark are using the Spanish Flu of 1918 to offer up a witty (but at times, shocking) commentary on class, truth and charm. Tongue firmly in cheek, we are introduced to Jay Horton (Billy Magnussen) a journalist who writes “first-hand accounts” of the uprisings and traumas wreaked upon the inner cities by the pandemic. When Billy Monk (Peter Sarsgaard) arrives at Horton’s Egg Island estate, presenting himself as the new cook, the fuse is lit on a thrilling battle of wits. But at the end of the film’s run time, who will have emerged victorious?

This is a film treacle-thick with sarcasm and knowing winks to the audience. And whilst this is genuinely so much fun, Coup! does have more to offer than that. The commentary on the social divides that became even more visible during the pandemic is poignant for its recency, even if it is delivered in a way that makes you laugh. “He’s dedicated his life to fighting for us,” Horton’s housekeeper muses, without a hint of irony, from her tiny, freezing staff quarters miles off the main estate.

Coup! benefits greatly from two brilliant lead performances. Magnussen and Sarsgaard are more than game for each other but are presented as such obvious binaries. Visually, they couldn’t be coded more differently. Magnussen’s Horton is all starched collars and Brylcreemed hair. Monk is all flowing shirts, long locks and dangly earrings. Even his gait has a shoulder-rolling swagger that Horton could never pull off. Set against each other, their chemistry is flawless, with neither man wishing to be the first to blink. Magnussen doesn’t offer a two-dimensional performance of the “poor little rich kid”, either. We get glimpses of who Horton wishes he was (the forward thinking, charming rebel) versus the sheltered heir that he is. He is at great pains to point out his values – everything from well-treated staff of all different ethnic backgrounds to his staunch vegetarianism and pacifism.  Sarsgaard, clearly enjoying his thick, “bless your heart” Southern accent, delivers each line with a kind of sparkling glee that sets his eyes ablaze.

As Monk begins his campaign of disobedience in the Horton house, we see echoes of our own pandemic experience. Very soon, the formalities have been dispensed with and everyone is strolling about in loungewear (if anything). The shops have run out of food or closed entirely. The schools being closed sees Monk teaching Horton’s two children card tricks and “hustler talk”. Everyone is mercilessly bored.

Coup!But as viewers, you won’t be. Coup! is extremely compact and dives into the storyline straight away. There are no unnecessary sub-plots or side conversations. Each character, no matter how small their role, is neatly defined and given enough screen time to be fleshed out sufficiently. The score feels of the period, too, which is a rather nice touch given that the dialogue (give or take a few references) could be from just a few years ago.

In amongst all the razor sharp jibes and well-timed allusions, Schuman and Stark deliver a bit of sucker punch as both Monk and Horton begin to unravel. The latter’s unravelling is very loud and very public, whilst Monk’s is much quieter and more impactful. The film’s teasing tone quickly disappears when Monk’s backstory is revealed. This is no longer a “haha, let’s eat the rich” kind of film. It’s about the real and devastating impact of men making decisions in rooms far away from the people they affect. This gives Coup! a couple of really strong changes in tone, stopping all the fun and levity completely.

Overall, Coup! is an interesting, fun watch with generous helpings of humour and moments of poignant shock that hit home exactly as they are supposed to. With sparkling performances and undeniable chemistry from the two leads, this is an enjoyable satire that knows exactly which emotional notes to hit.

Coup! is currently screening at the Glasgow Film Festival. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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