When politics get ugly, filmmakers turn to tar-black satire to weigh in on the state of the world – as with 1976’s Network, which has grown only more prescient of late, and 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Blockers) wades into this time-honored tradition and our present political moment with The Oath, which he wrote, directed and stars in.
Set in an entirely too plausible alternate timeline of the United States, The Oath hinges on its titular policy – a Patriot’s Oath that the White House requests all American citizens sign to declare their loyalty. Supposedly, there won’t be consequences for refusing to sign, but those that do will receive tax benefits. As the deadline for signing looms, the liberal-minded (and slightly insufferable) Chris, which Barinholtz has said is a more extreme version of himself, and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) prepare to welcome his family to their home for Thanksgiving. Political tensions around the dinner table rise and ultimately come to a head when two members of the Citizen’s Protection Unit (an underused John Cho and chilling Billy Magnussen) show up to interrogate Chris.
The concept itself is promising, and the early scenes perfectly calibrate the simmering tension of a country in political upheaval. Barinholtz infuses Chris with an all-too-familiar sense that he’s a live wire, one Twitter update or cable news soundbite away from an explosive rant. In his self-righteousness, Chris verges on being intolerable, while still managing to make valid points as he veers over into extreme worst-case scenarios.
Barinholtz wisely leans into that, gleefully exposing his character’s ridiculousness particularly when tempered by the more reasonable arguments of his wife and sister, Alice (Carrie Brownstein in a delightfully kind-hearted role that makes smart use of the role’s opposition to her own “riot grrrl” image). Haddish gives a rare quietly understated performance as the diplomatic voice of reason in the family. While Barinholtz still makes room for her signature outlandish sense of humor and a few choice hilarious outbursts, it’s a wise choice to make her the more even-keeled of the pair, allowing her to shine in quieter, more emotional moments in a way we’ve yet to see from the comedian.
The build-up to Thanksgiving day presents Chris and Kai in a litany of familiar scenarios, airing political frustrations to co-workers, uncomfortably witnessing a confrontation at a restaurant, and breaking out into squabbles with his family, most particularly with his more conservative brother Pat (Barinholtz’s real life brother Jon) and his right-wing girlfriend Abbie (an effectively caustic Meredith Hagner). But while those moments feel painfully familiar and hit home in the way they’re intended, they also read as slightly exhausting – the laughs laced with a sigh as we watch arguments play out that have brought us to a collective national state of exhaustion and despair.
What’s more – Chris and his family’s predicament, at least before CPU shows up, feels very much like #whitepeopleproblems. The film rarely engages with issues of race or broaches how something like a loyalty oath might impact the most vulnerable like migrant and refugee populations. In that regard, the satire fails to land because it’s not really interrogating anything beyond self-righteous middle-class whingeing and the unfortunate, but not world-altering, consequence of a ruined Thanksgiving dinner.
Barinholtz ups the ante when Magnusson and Cho arrive, the film quickly devolving into a suspense thriller that has trouble finding its footing. Introducing themes of toxic masculinity, vigilante violence, and more, The Oath wants to go for broke by moving from progressive domestic satire to an off-the-rails political home invasion thriller, but it gets mired in that transition. Its violence and thrills play for shock value without ever landing any meaningful blow because of a constant vacillation between push-the-envelope satire and real-world stakes that are undercut by its eventual hollow conclusion, as well as static camerawork and off-kilter framing.
It’s hard to fault Barinholtz for wanting to satirize our current moment; he admirably chooses to tackle of-the-moment political tensions and skewers both sides in the process (though certainly leaves the harshest commentary for the right). And yet, the film wrongfully substitutes abrupt violence for anything truly provocative, squandering the promise of its early scenes with a disjointed third act and pat ending that renders its satire toothless. B-
The Oath (2018 movie)
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