The Oath is a weird fucking movie.
Part familial comedy, part dystopian horror show, part sociopolitical commentary, it's a really tight, tense little picture about a liberal couple (writer/director Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) who host Thanksgiving on the eve of a national referendum being passed, requiring all United States citizens to swear the titular pledge of allegiance to both their country and their President. Much like Jordan Peele's Get Out, it takes a universal premise (having to deal with your extended family around the holidays) and adds an unsettling genre twist. Once two members of America's newly minted secret police (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show up on their doorstep during dinner, things get really fucking wild.
We had a chance to sit down with Barinholtz and discuss his rather hilariously unsettling vision, and what followed was a rather frank chat regarding the current "state of things", and how that climate informed his decision to step behind the camera for the first time...
Birth.Movies.Death: So, why The Oath? Why make this your directorial debut?
Ike Barinholtz: You know, after the 2016 election, we hosted Thanksgiving at my house. Just as we usually do after dinner, we had some bourbon going around, and my mom and my brother and I got into a big argument. Like, it was crazier than usual. But what was weird was that we were all pretty much on the same side, more or less. And I was like, "Jesus, if this is going on in this house, what's happening in other houses?" Then I started talking to friends of mine who had gone home and were coming back with the same types of stories. So, I thought this is a great setting for a movie: a house, during the week of Thanksgiving, in a politically fraught America.
But I also knew I wanted [The Oath] to be about something bigger, and I love dystopian movies, Children of Men and stuff like that. But what's the genesis for those types of worlds? So, I kind of started toying with this concept of a "loyalty oath", and if this was the kind of thing that's hanging over everyone's head. Very quickly I was like, "okay, then I can have these [government agents] show up and cause mayhem". I broke [the story] quick, and wrote it by myself quickly, and found these guys who were crazy enough to make it [executive producers Edward H. Hamm Jr., Kristen Murtha and Maya Rodrigo]. They were like: "we gotta make this now, because who the hell knows where we're going to be in a month or a year." We got a killer cast right away and shot the hell out of it, fast and furious style. I don't mean we shot it like one of the Fast & Furious movies, but in the true sense of the term. There are no car crashes, but Vin Diesel's voice is definitely in the movie.
BMD: You sure?
IB: [laughs] No, I'm not sure.
BMD: How did you approach writing "The Patriot's Oath" itself? It feels so...well, real. Like, I could imagine [President] Trump implementing something this asinine and wacky.
IB: I know, it's so crazy. Really, I started toying with the concept of "loyalty". I didn't know a whole lot about Trump until he started running for President, forcing himself into our lives. But I was very taken with his obsession with loyalty and combined that with my interest in McCarthyism and how you're either loyal to your country or a "traitor" in some people's eyes. So, I wanted to write something that was very simple - almost like the Pledge of Allegiance - but that could be construed as slightly insidious. But at the same time, I wanted the Oath to also be ambiguous, where for some folks it'd be this big deal, and others could just shrug it off, and sign it as a dumb, innocuous act.
However, if you really scratch beneath the surface, it's pretty nefarious stuff. It's just enough to divide people. And then, once you add on the penalties being rumored for people who don't sign it, the grey nature of it starts to give way to a more black and white definition. All the sudden, the folks who wouldn't sign it at all before are like "I wanna keep my insurance". Meanwhile, others who would sign it with no questions asked are also able to label those who don't all sorts of things that will get them practically blacklisted in certain circles.
BMD: What I also responded to was this really truthful presentation - regardless of the sort of dystopian set up - of families coming together, and differing political opinions almost being a given. But you're harsh on both sides. You're an equal opportunity satirist.
IB: Absolutely. I didn't want to take a side, you know? I wanted to tell my story, and let everyone know what I think, but I also wanted to explicitly show the bad behavior on both sides, and how brains are being broken every day in this country. The message of the movie really is "don't let external forces affect your internal core." There will come a day when Trump is not President, and you might want to talk to your Uncle again. Living in this space, right now, is a challenge, but there's also hopefully a future where we move past all this.
BMD: And you play this member of the family who is just obsessed with the news. Like, you can't just let it the fuck go.
IB: That was me. I was that fucking guy. When I wrote it, I was ready to go crazy. I would have the news - MSNBC, Fox News, CNN - on all day. When you're losing your mind over political stuff, that's about the worst thing you could possibly do to yourself. You're just watching the same story, over and over again, filtered through all these different viewpoints, some of you which you know you're watching just to make yourself mad. That's not healthy, man. So, I thought it'd be funny to have my character be this guy who is really liberal, and sort of terrified about what's going on, but he's not handling it the right way. He's suspicious of everyone, and ends up going after his own family, which blows up at dinner and shows that this climate is just terrible for your mind.
BMD: At the same time, you craft Tiffany's character into being this constant voice of reason. She's always trying to calm you, her fictional husband, the fuck down.
IB: Tiffany's character is inspired by my wife. She could not be more aligned with me politically, but is also a realist and realizes your kids matter more than anything, and letting some guy in Washington D.C. alter your every mood is just as bad for the people who should be the most important to you. So, Tiffany had to be that center, only she brings this big, bodacious, in your face vibe to the character that, when she finally explodes because of my actions, you really feel it. She's terrific.
BMD: She really is. But there's also something cool about you casting a black woman in this "liberal" family, as if you're commenting on your character's own sense of liberal self-righteousness without doing it directly.
IB: Well, it's mostly about her being perfect for the part, but you're right: it fits into [my character's] view of this "liberal America"...
BMD: He's the "post racial" white guy!
IB: [laughs] Yeah, but it's also as much about commenting on the modern American family, and how different it looks from even ten years ago.
BMD: Can you talk a little about the more fantastical elements of the movie? It feels again - the "The Patriot's Oath" - that it's just futuristic enough without going full-blown Purge.
IB: Right? And we got The First Purge this year which, in my mind, this is right before. We're right on the brink of passing "Purge Day". But that's what's also funny, is that while I was writing this, Trump made this huge deal about "Loyalty Day", and that played into the creation of the story. You know, "Loyalty Day" has been around for a while in America, but nobody cared until he stood up there making a big fucking deal about it. But this is how I wanted the whole movie to feel: not too broad, not too fantastical, but rooted in the ridiculous things we were currently seeing.
BMD: It's too real, man.
IB: But that's good that you felt that way! It means I got you thinking about what's happening around you. This isn't entirely a fantasy.
The Oath is in theaters now.