The Coffee Table (2022)

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THE COFFEE TABLE
Directed by Caye Casas

A reviewer’s nightmare: an excellent film, but you can’t say what the heck happens in it without giving the game away. It’s difficult to describe The Coffee Table in a way that makes it sound remotely interesting, let alone one of the most messed up, gleefully unpleasant films in years. Basically, a bickering couple, Jesús and Maria, who are mostly together for their baby, buy an ugly new coffee table because she tells him not to. Feeling emasculated by her mocking tone, he insists on buying this monstrosity as an act of rebellion. The smarmy salesman, who presumably sees this dynamic play out all the time, insists it’ll change their lives – understatement of the year. Shortly after they get home to prepare for the arrival of Jesús’ brother and his inappropriately young girlfriend, things go extremely wrong. And from there it’s Murphy’s Law: they get worse and worse until the only thing you can do is laugh then feel bad for it.

The Coffee Table is a sustained piece of cruelty from a director (Caye Casas) who wants to make his characters, and by extension his audience, suffer. What it does exceptionally well is create a horrific situation and wring it for every last drop of tension and cringe. The characters, one in particular, do not always handle it best – but then you can understand why they’d do what they do in such grave circumstances. No, it’s thankfully not especially graphic, though it’s a great example of how what we don’t see can carry as much weight as whatever the best effects team could conjure up. Even without money shots it’s harrowing. Dark, brutal and one of the most stressful viewing experiences in recent memory – making Uncut Gems or Beau is Afraid seem almost meditative. Like Rope, there’s also a thriller component: a character trying to keep a secret that the audience knows, and everyone keeps looking like they’re about to find out. However, unlike Hitchcock’s underrated work, the excitement and tension are undercut by tragedy. If we want the guilty party to get away with it, it’s only because of how devastating it would be for everyone else if they were found out. And while it arguably fails to introduce enough plates to spin, a sense of inevitability hangs over it as we wait for the last one to crash.

Yet, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Casa finding comedy in the bleakest moments. Whether it’s an amusing observation about marriage, heavy use of dramatic irony, unintended wordplays, or even moments of ridiculous farce, you’re always somewhere between watching it in dread or humorous disbelief. Importantly, the script never loses sight of the characters in this awful but absurd setup since we’re ultimately asked to side with both leads as the story progresses. And while the early sections, where we see them having domestic spats, are laugh-out-loud funny, they are also deeply sad. These are two people who presumably once loved each other, being unable to even buy furniture without resorting to undercutting and dismissing each other. It’s an exaggerated but relatable dynamic for anyone who has experienced or observed a declining relationship. It helps that David Pareja and Estefanía de los Santos are excellent performers, both willing to put their all into it – dignity be damned – and share an excellent bad chemistry.

The Coffee Table will clearly not be for everyone – this five-star review shouldn’t be taken as a straightforward recommendation. While it’s a different type of horror, and far less violent, think of it a bit like how you wouldn’t wholeheatedly recommend Martyrs even though its a modern masterpiece. By the end of Act One, when you see roughly where it’s going, you’ll know if it’s time to tap out. But stick around and you’ll be rewarded with an uncompromising, unforgettable tragedy that looks at gender roles, aging and how small, seemingly insignificant moments can have catastrophic consequences. Casas set out to make a feel-bad film and has succeeded – it’s a genre classic. And already a likely contender for my top ten. Days later, I still haven’t stopped thinking about it.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Coffee Table is out on VOD from May 14th 2024 in the US and on 20th May 2024 in the UK from Second Sight Films

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About david.s.smith 455 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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