By Jim Slotek
An unsubtle and eventually off-the-rails satire of politically-charged domestic life in Trump’s America, The Oath is the feature film directorial/writing debut of Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Neighbors). And he has things to say.
Or rather, his character Chris does. He’s addicted to his progressive news feeds and consumed by hatred for the mostly unnamed, blustery demagogue that sits as President.
Said dictator-in-chief is so consumed with shutting down his enemies, that he institutes an Oath of Patriotism (including fealty to the President). Sign it and you get a tax break. Refuse and you’ll get a visit by the extra-legal patriot organization the CPU (the Citizens Protection Unit), which is manned by “enthusiastic” volunteers.
(In a wink to the audience, according to the always-on news, one of the notables who “disappears” after a visit by the CPU is Barinholtz’s onscreen pal Seth Rogen from Neighbors).
Against this sadly, easily-imaginable backdrop, and violent protests across the country, Chris and his less-enthusiastic social justice warrior wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) have agreed to host Thanksgiving for his mostly Red State family, his brother pat (Jon Barinholtz, Ike’s brother), his detested girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), who is addicted to her own Infowars-like feeds on her phone), and his parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis).
There’s also Chris’s putatively progressive sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) and her family (her husband, played by Jay Duplass, arrives with the flu and disappears to the bedroom, with but one scene in the movie – but it is a big one).
For the first half of the film, this is the family Thanksgiving you never want to experience, with easily-triggered arguments about the right to protest versus getting-killed-is-what-happens-when-you-break-the-law. Though Barinholtz’s real-life cards are clearly in the “Resist Trump” category, he doesn’t do us the disservice of making Chris a hero. He’s clearly as hard-headed and obnoxious about his views as the relatives he can’t abide, and resists all attempts to change the conversation.
They’re there investigating a report of Chris “interfering with the right of a citizen to sign The Oath”), and though they have no legal authority nor any right to be there, they refuse to leave. Violence follows, and a stalemate that isn’t promising for anyone involved.
It is the outside world – previously seen only in news reports and online feeds – invading their comfortable little discord corner. (It is also as if Barinholtz is creating the very “brownshirts” invoked by people who see the current administration as fascists). It injects violence into their lives and amps the movie’s energy sky high. But it’s also a cheap narrative device to bring the feuding family desperately together, as opposed to some sort of realistic dramatic turn.
As a first-time filmmaker, Barinholtz is on training wheels, shooting almost entirely in closed-space interior, the better to concentrate on his words. To that extent, The Oath is (at first anyway) a scarily realistic depiction of the argument feedback loop that seems to be ripping society apart. But the denouement allows him to slip away without a realistic premise for how one would leave that loop.
The Oath. Written and directed by Ike Barinholtz. Starring Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish and Billy Magnussen. Opens Friday, October 19 across Canada.