The depiction of the wealthy elite in recent films has been less than flattering. Movies like “Parasite,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “The Menu” have shifted the power dynamics away from the super wealthy and into the hands of the lower classes, often with deadly consequences. “Coup!” is a new addition to this growing list of films that challenge the status quo. Set during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, this darkly comic thriller explores the conflict between the privileged and the working class.
The film revolves around Jay, a progressive U.S. journalist played by Billy Magnussen, who takes refuge with his family and their servants on a luxurious island estate. While Jay pens angry articles suggesting he is experiencing the chaos of New York firsthand, a mysterious grifter named Floyd, played by Peter Sarsgaard, arrives as their new cook. Floyd sees an opportunity to upend the social order and spark a rebellion to seize the mansion.
The inspiration for “Coup!” came from the filmmakers’ own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends since childhood, Austin Stark and Joseph Schuman found themselves living together in Long Island as New Yorkers with means fled to more secluded areas. This mass exodus provided the backdrop for their story, as they explored the dynamics between the employer and employee when the social order breaks down.
While the Spanish Flu serves as the backdrop for the film, the filmmakers emphasize that it is merely a canvas to trap their characters on a deserted island. They wanted to have fun with the idea of how the upstairs-downstairs relationship would function outside of societal norms. According to Schuman, emergencies like a pandemic often expose the fault lines of the class system, which was appealing to explore.
To add a layer of distance from the present day, Stark and Schuman decided to set the film 100 years ago during the progressive era. They found parallels between the conflicts of that time and those of the present day, as not much has changed in terms of class struggle. The casting of the film was key to bringing these themes to life. Billy Magnussen, known for playing tormentor roles, took on the part of the tormented Jay, while Peter Sarsgaard’s calculated energy made him the perfect fit for the rebellious Floyd. Fisher Stevens also makes a cameo as real-life muckraker Upton Sinclair, who happened to be a fan of the writer and activist.
While the filmmakers acknowledge the influence of films like “Parasite,” they clarify that their intention was not solely to criticize the wealthy. Instead, they aimed to create an original story that spoke to their own class struggle and social divide. The conflict between Jay and Floyd in the same house represents the polarization within society, with a dark and esoteric edge.
“We weren’t thinking so much about it being an ‘eat the rich’ film as much as just doing something original and something that appealed to us,” says Stark. “But it’s really cool to see this kind of sub-genre take shape.”
In conclusion, “Coup!” adds to the growing list of films that challenge the power dynamics between the wealthy and the lower classes. Set during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, this darkly comic thriller explores the conflict between a progressive journalist, Jay, and a mysterious grifter, Floyd. The filmmakers took inspiration from their own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to create a story that examines the dynamics of the upstairs-downstairs relationship when societal norms break down. Through their casting choices and storytelling, they hope to shed light on the class struggle and social divide that persists in society.