The Oath (2018)
At one point in “The Oath” — the new Thanksgiving-set dark family drama written, directed by, and starring comedian Ike Barinholtz — we get the prototypical Norman Rockwell shot of the film’s central family sharing dinner, passing iconic dishes and exchanging pleasantries. But by now, viewers will know not to trust this façade, how it conceals an undercurrent of culture war animosity ready to boil over into counterproductive name-calling at any minute — as indeed it soon does.
You might conclude from the presence of Barinholtz (from “Neighbors”and this year’s “Blockers”) and “Girls Trip”’s Tiffany Haddish that “The Oath” is a standard dysfunctional family dark comedy with incisive political commentary sprinkled throughout. Don’t be fooled; this is a straight social thriller, with moments of comic levity sprinkled throughout just to relieve tension. You’ve heard the phrase “funny because it’s true”? “The Oath” may be a little too true to still be funny.
In its opening moments, we’re introduced to an America about two steps further down the Trumpian escalator to fascism than our present political reality. An excerpted quote and barrage of voiceover news coverage explain that citizens have until next year’s Black Friday to sign a “Patriot’s Oath” pledging loyalty to an unnamed President or face the wholly implied consequences, likely be doled out by the newly created (thankfully fictional) Citizens Protection Unit (CPU). Watching all this play out are Kai (Haddish) and Chris (Barinholtz), who fumes about not “letting this happen” in a bit of performative male outrage she sidesteps with innocuous pillow talk.
Flash forward to the Thanksgiving week in question, and Chris is struggling to accommodate the expectations of his conservative-leaning family against his own perpetual news consumption and outrage over the ever-worsening developments of major city protest clashes and missing political dissidents — they even got Seth Rogen! His mother (Nora Dunn, playing a pitch-perfect grandma type) may be stubbornly determined not to let politics invade their time together, even as they bear witness to a series of borderline hate crimes.
The tension heightens when Chris’s brother Pat (played by Barinholtz’s real brother, Jon) arrives with his high-strung girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), whose name he immediately gets wrong. Soon enough ,we learn she’s something of a right-wing troll, “mixing it up online” with “haters and losers,” quick to spin national tragedies to her side’s favor and question any fact that challenges her preconceived biases.
For my money, “The Oath”’s success, despite its relative lack of laughs, rides on juxtapositions like these, for they get at something unavoidably absurd about this moment in American history; we’re all managing our fears at the creeping normalization of government tyranny against far more mundane annoyances, and often suppressing our feelings for the sake of preserving civility.
Though Chris may be on the right side of history, Barinholtz’s script and abrasive performance show us repeatedly how his virtue-signaling and foulmouthed shaming of others less principled contribute to the two sides’ communication breakdown. Haddish is underserved throughout most of the movie as his long-suffering, apolitical wife, but gets a few moments to shine towards the end, while Carrie Brownstein is quietly hilarious in her reactions as Chris’s politically compatible sister, Alice.
The film also features a heart-pumping escalation in its second half that might make it even scarier than last year’s “Get Out” — another social horror from a first-time director with background in sketch comedy — if only for being more unpredictable and truer to life. It has no need for fictional monsters or even “Get Out”-esque conspiracies, not when there are human monsters like the one played by Billy Magnussen to terrifying effect in this film’s third act.
Following the turn, there are certain plot threads and character arcs left hanging and a resolution that — while perhaps accurate to the way formative political events take place outside our control — comes across too convenient to feel fully-earned. The confrontational-comedic tone that seemed to make marketing the film so difficult might also be improved by toning down the first half’s harshness to make the eventual turn that much more powerful and unexpected.