Ike Barinholtz wants you to call your brother. Or maybe it’s your uncle, mother, or a friend from college. Whoever it is, Barinholtz hopes his new film will make you think not only about the state of our country, but about the important relationships in your life that may have been impacted by politics.
“The Oath,” with Barinholtz at the helm as writer, director, and star, is a dark comedy with its feet firmly planted in the current political climate of the United States. It is no surprise that Barinholtz began writing the film in 2016, after his own family Thanksgiving suffered tension in the wake of the presidential election.
The titular oath says in part: “I pledge my loyalty to my President and my country and vow to defend them from enemies both foreign and domestic.” Citizens are given until Black Friday to either sign or not sign the oath. Those who sign are promised tax incentives, but everyone is assured there are no consequences for abstaining. Barinholtz’s Chris and his wife Kai (the wonderful Tiffany Haddish) agree they won’t compromise their values by signing, but then we flash forward 10 months to the week of Thanksgiving, where that choice is no longer simple.
“The Oath” has a definite liberal perspective, but Chris is by no means portrayed as a perfect hero. We watch as he ignores family in lieu of perusing stories on his phone and he endlessly barrages his wife with the day’s news. It becomes clear as Kai brushes her teeth while Chris regales her with the latest updates that she is exhausted by her position as his sounding board. It’s a moment that many audience members will recognize as deeply familiar. We all know, or have known, a Chris; someone so obsessed with the 24-hour news cycle they find it impossible to unplug and engage. Unless that engagement involves arguing about the latest headlines.
A lot happens at Chris and Kai’s family Thanksgiving, with plenty of drama spurred by the arrival of Chris’ conservative brother Pat (played by Ike’s real-life sibling Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hanger), but the real climax comes when two officers from the newly-created Citizens Protection Unit arrive to question Chris after someone reports him. It’s difficult not to immediately understand Barinholtz’s McCarthyism influence here, as well as to start pointing fingers about who may or may not have called Chris in.
Once CPU officers Peter (John Cho) and Mason (a manic Billy Magnussen) arrive, what was already a tense week of family time erupts into a full-blown confrontation complete with zip tie handcuffs, an accidental tasing, and plenty of duct tape. Amidst the chaos, Peter attempts to keep everyone calm while being smashed over the head and shot at. His good intentions are mostly thwarted by his deranged partner Mason who spends his time breaking noses, cutting free of his restraints, and threatening further violence. The power dynamics of the situation tug and pull until breaking news changes things for everyone in the room. The ending may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but things come full circle.
“The Oath” is alternately funny and cynical, with moments that will resonate for people on both ends of the political spectrum. Whether you are seeking confirmation of your fears or catharsis for all the things you can’t say at your family’s dinner table, Barinholtz and his talented cast deliver. “The Oath” opens in NYC and Los Angeles on October 12, and everywhere on October 19th, which gives you plenty of time to check it out before your next Thanksgiving dinner.