Ike Barinholtz’ The Oath feels like it exists in the same universe as The Purge, and I mean that as a compliment. Both Barinholtz’ movie, which is a comedy-thriller of sorts, and the horror franchise The Purge exist in a world of a vague normalcy where everything kind of gets thrown out the window when the seeping wounds of our country are laid bare. In The Purge movies, this is played as a damning indictment of income inequality and the brutality of human nature where the secure pray on the weak. But for Barinholtz, he has seized on our political moment to showcase the fragility of our country and how everything is just a few bad days away coming apart at the seams. Thankfully, his movie has laughs to relieve the tension even if his conclusion kind of shrugs away the darkness the film embraces.
The film is set in a world where a fictional Presidential administration has asked American citizens to sign a loyalty oath pledging fidelity to the President and the country. While there are technically no official penalties for not signing the oath, those that sign will get tax credits and those that don’t might get a visit from the Orwellian “Citizen Protection Unit” (CPU). The story follows middle-class couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish), who have decided not to sign the oath, which is due the day after Thanksgiving, and are plowing ahead with hosting Chris’ family for the Thanksgiving holiday. That includes Chris’ well-meaning parents Eleanor (Nora Dunn) and Hank (Chris Ellis), his affable sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) and her husband (Jay Duplass), and his idiot brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and his new right-wing girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner). Everything is already deteriorating when Chris’ politics and obsession with the news has him fighting everyone in his family, and then CPU agents Mason (Bill Magnussen) and Peter (John Cho) show up at the house, which only escalates tensions further.
The first half of The Oath builds a growing sense of dread constantly cut with comedy. Barinholtz pulls off the delicate balancing act by putting political divisions at the forefront and simmering real-world tensions in the background. Rather than put the characters in the middle of the protest, they keep looking at the news and other sources for information, which makes the world presented seem unnervingly real. In a world we’re the news has our attention non-stop, Barinholtz has painted a darkly comic picture of how bad things could get while the rest of us trying to cling to a semblance of normalcy.
That pull between the encroaching darkness of fascism and the need to keep things “normal” and familiar provides the great comic tension of The Oath, which not only gives the movie a distinct personality, but also serves as a release valve. Without the jokes, The Oath would feel more like a Cassandra, serving as a warning of our political future while giving us a pretty clear picture of our political present. The movie still does that, but it never feels preachy because Barinholtz is willing to take shots at all the characters, including his liberal protagonist.
Where the movie really starts to delve into thriller territory is when the CPU agents arrive. Without going too much into spoilers, the film starts leaving behind the immediate political questions of our day and starts going into larger moral issues about what it means to protect your family and how your beliefs would shift if you were truly tested by an opposing force rather than just venting your frustrations. Again, Barinholtz never ditches the comedy entirely, but the film definitely shifts gears to become more a moral thriller rather than a raucous comedy about dealing with relatives.
And yet Barinholtz is able to hold it all together for the most part until the very end where he lets the air out of the movie. It’s not that the ending of The Oath is bad, but it doesn’t really live up to the heaviness of what came before. It’s like Barinholtz gave his characters an out that they didn’t earn or have anything to do with. At its best, the ending cautions that all we can hope for is to get lucky because on our current course, everything is going to go to hell. The movie greets this bleak conclusion with a shrug, eager to return to normalcy, which, to be fair, is arguably the realistic course of action our country will take if we ever get out of crisis mode.
The trailers for The Oath make it look more like a broad comedy with people getting tasered and lots of yelling and swearing, and while that’s all present in the finished feature, it sidesteps the interesting political themes that Barinholtz puts at the center of his movie. The Oath isn’t just a movie about, “Boy, it sure is uncomfortable when people with different political opinions gather around the Thanksgiving table.” It’s a movie about how things we uphold like the Constitution and the First Amendment are just words, and people will easily discard their values for what’s easiest. That’s not a message that’s going to go down smooth, but the constant stream of laughs certainly helps.