"...I pledge my loyalty to my President and my country and vow to defend them from enemies, both foreign and domestic." - The Patriot's Oath
Thanks to the massive success of James DeMonaco's Purge series, we've been seeing more and more "social horror movies" creep into the market; a trend that will likely continue thanks to Jordan Peele's blisteringly frightening and funny Get Out, which was nominated for Best Picture and Actor, and ended up taking home a golden statue for Best Original Screenplay (not to mention $176 million at the domestic box office). These works are, more or less, a return to the societal commentary that George Romero was smuggling into his scare shows since the shambling, flesh-eating corpses that haunted Night of the Living Dead ('68). In light of the fact that we're arguably experiencing one of the greatest instances of political divide in US history, it feels like a safe bet that just as many folks are going to be gathering in multiplexes to see their cinematic diversions address "the state of things" as there are audience members attempting to escape the endless parade of atrocities we call a "news cycle".
Comedian Ike Barinholtz's The Oath approaches that seemingly endless barrage of information with a deeply cynical sense of satire, as Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) – a progressive young couple preparing to host Thanksgiving Dinner at their house in three days – find their lives quickly spiraling out of control due to a contentious government initiative. In this near future vision of America, a faceless President has ordered that all citizens sign the titular pledge to their country, affirming their allegiance to both it and the man in the Oval Office. Chris and Kai have vowed to each other that they'll refuse to ink such a document, as it's their Constitutional right to question institutional actions they don't agree with (such as this one). Meanwhile, Chris' entire family have taken the plunge, and now the pair of liberals are just looking to get through Turkey Day without losing it or being carried away by a new faction of TSA (who have been rumored to be showing up on dissenters’ doorsteps and dragging them away to some revamped iteration of Guantanamo Bay).
The brilliance of The Oath's screenplay (which Barinholtz also penned) is that it isn't just some venom-spewing takedown of Red State America (though there's a fair share of that built into the movie, of course). Instead, the lens of the freshman filmmaker’s mocking microscope is fixated on all who attend this familial obligation. Chris is basically a left wing misery addict, hooked to the constant news updates on his phone, ready to announce the end of the world like some sort of upper middle class soothsayer. Thankfully, Kai keeps him somewhat grounded, imploring her husband to just shrug off politics for a weekend and let everyone live their lives. It's not so much that Kai's a centrist, as she's just worn the fuck down; the blitzkrieg of bad news (that comes from both the TV and her husband) rendering her simply over any debate before it even begins. Besides, they've got a daughter (Priah Ferguson) to worry about, and can't be stressing over national affairs while tending to a home 24/7.
Unfortunately, Chris' family arrives, ensuring that no peace is kept. His dad, Hank (Chris Ellis), is just a retired old guy who lets his son's mother (Nora Dunn) handle all discussion. "Do we have to watch the news?" she asks Chris, in that way only mothers can (resulting in the TV being begrudgingly shut off). Not so diplomatic about their disagreements are Chris' yuppie brother Pat (Barinholtz's own sibling, Jon), and his new, blonde pixie girlfriend Abby (Meredith Hagner), whose name her host can never seem to remember. Pat's aggressions become micro snipes at Chris' stances, while Abby tosses out passive aggressive co-signs or comments about how the man of the house never seems to include her when offering everybody a drink. As a source of support, Chris looks to his sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein), who definitely agrees with him, but also believes her brother brings much of this conflict on himself by not biting his tongue. Since her better half (Jay Duplass) is stuck in bed with a stomach bug, there's no escaping Chris always annoyingly looking to her for back up.
For anyone who's ever had a Thanksgiving get ripped to shreds by their own family's inability to just shut the fuck up and eat some bird for a few hours, this dynamic is going to hit almost too close to home. Barinholtz captures the chaos with a camera that's gliding and steady (courtesy of cinematographer Cary Lalonde), holding on lines and reactions just a bit too long so that we feel the impact each opinion has on both its holder and the relative they're practically forcing it upon. The dinner table becomes a daisy chain of confrontation, escalating to an emotional explosion that would probably make most want to walk out of the theater, had the performers (especially Haddish, who's the most truthful actor of the bunch) not caused you to laugh so hard. For how uncomfortable it is, The Oath is still one hell of a dystopian comedy, tipping over into vulgar absurdity at just the right moments, almost like a defense mechanism against becoming exhausting.
Then the Secret Police show up. A pair of windbreaker-sporting drones – Peter (John Cho) and Mason (Billy Magnussen) – flash their badges in monotone fashion because they recently received a tip there was someone in the house forcibly attempting to prevent another citizen from signing the Patriot's Oath. But before Chris and the rest of the clan can tear each other apart through a series of interrogations, Mason gets into Chris' mug because he can sense this little leftist weakling has "never served his country before", and deserves to be “taught a lesson”. In a flash, guns, knives and fire-pokers are out and being utilized to create an unlikely standoff situation, where these two agents become suburban captives, and the house's owners have zero idea how to diffuse the situation.
While comparisons to The Purge are inevitable (and frankly invited by Barinholtz, thanks to an early joke), The Oath never switches into the next gear of crazy for it to quite exist in that franchise’s batshit, bloodthirsty orbit. The hostage scenario is explored via a series of conversations, and while it's always fun to watch these comedians bounce off of each other (with the added tension making you squirm just a touch more than usual), the movie's storytelling idea seems to plateau at about the midway point. This is a shame: had Barinholtz been a bit more audacious with his execution, he may have crafted a low-key classic. Instead, The Oath never really rises above clever curiosity, bolstered by a collection of our greatest improv players.
Nevertheless, Barinholtz's initial trip behind the camera announces that he's a much greater force to be considered and reckoned with than being simply a supporting player in Judd Apatow-produced jams such as the Neighbors films and Blockers. This is a filmmaker who has something to say, and is taking advantage of a specific moment in both political and genre cinema history to put his rather confrontational theses out there. In the future, one just hopes that he doesn't pull his punches, as it's not hard to imagine there was a meaner (and slightly bigger version) of The Oath's second half that didn't make it in front of cameras. For now, what we're left with is undeniable promise, and a film that's the very epitome of falling just short of greatness.
The Oath is in theaters now.