Venice 2023 review: Coup! (Joseph Schuman & Austin Stark)

“Made with flair, Coup! is a light-hearted but devious little comedy-thriller.”

The horrific memory still lingers in the mind: lockdown. At the height of the COVID pandemic governments forced businesses to close down in order to minimize the spread of the virus. The visions of being confined to our homes are conjured up by the first cooperation of American director duo Joseph Schuman and Austin Stark (this being the latter’s debut feature). Set in a previous pandemic, their Coup! uses our collective experience as the background for a tale about workers’ rights and the hypocrisy of rich, white liberalism. Starring a gleefully scenery chewing Peter Sarsgaard, Coup! is an amusing attempt at approaching these topics from the side of ‘the masses’, even if it contains an almost fatal flaw in choosing its roguish protagonist.

The United States, 1918. The Spanish flu is raging across the nation, and journalist J.C. Horton (Billy Magnussen) is raging against President Woodrow Wilson. Writing for a progressive paper, Horton decries Wilson’s reluctance to shut down businesses while attempting to prevent the press from writing about the pandemic. The President prefers their focus to be on America’s war efforts. Horton claims to be writing from a New York City that is under epidemic siege, but in reality his fulminations come from his large estate on Egg Island, well off the city’s coast. His money begotten from his family’s meatpacking business, Horton and his wife June (Sarah Gadon) nevertheless, despite their considerable wealth, hold progressive values. They are conscientious objectors, they don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, and they allow their staff more liberties than your average upper-class family would. Their values are about to be put to the test though.

Problems start with the arrival of a new cook, Floyd Monk (Sarsgaard). This irreverent man who looks more like a fur trapper than a chef soon starts to ingratiate himself with the lady of the house and her children, and after getting rid of the pesky head of staff he cleverly puts the rest of the staff up against their employer. By asking for a pay raise here or a move from their remote quarters to the main house there, Floyd starts to get on Horton’s nerves. The latter is on edge because he sees a possibility of running for governor; the skeleton in his closet – that he is faking being in the city – could thwart his hopes in that regard. With the market closed and food becoming scarce, Floyd’s influence over the family grows. One by one their principles fly out the window, driving Horton to madness, and in a final act of desperation he tries to win his family back from this insolent scoundrel.

Artistically flat but made with much panache, Coup!‘s message of the proletariat taking away power from capitalists is rather broad (but fitting for the time period), even for those who support it in our current times. Exposing the hypocrisy of people like Horton, who talks the leftist, progressive talk while luxuriating in his mansion waited on by staff, only partly works because the film doesn’t show the Hortons as necessarily bad people, not even the man of the house. The film’s biggest mistake though is its protagonist. Meant to be a charming rogue, this is immediately undermined in Floyd’s opening scene in which he stages the suicide of the real Floyd Monk. Even if the film attempts to sow ambiguity in its closing scene (or is it meant to be Floyd dealing a final blow after defeat?), that opening leaves little to the imagination and should put the sympathies of the audience squarely in the Horton camp. Schuman and Stark try to chip away at that through Horton’s increasing unreasonableness and hubris, but murder trumps all.

With a mixture of mischief and evil in his gaze, Peter Sarsgaard plays his role with wild abandon. His Floyd has charm in spades and his Southern drawl makes him seem harmless, but underneath all that lurks something sinister. Sarsgaard lays it on thick, understanding full well that this is a satire and subtlety is not the name of the game, yet his performance is the highlight of the film. Magnussen plays it a bit more subdued, at least before Floyd pushes him over the edge, but he is the ideal straight man to Sarsgaard’s scamp. Made with flair, Coup! is a light-hearted but devious little comedy-thriller that makes for perfect material as a closing film for this year’s Giornate degli Autori.