'The Oath': Film Review | LAFF 2018

Some finesse would help in a dark comedy crafted with blunt force.
10/12/2018

Co-starring Tiffany Haddish, actor Ike Barinholtz's filmmaking debut watches as political divisions in a barely fictionalized United States wreck a family's Thanksgiving.

Think family get-togethers are a challenge in the age of Trump? Things get even tougher in Ike Barinholtz's The Oath, which envisions a near-future scenario that might serve as a bridge between our reality and that of The Purge.

Here, all Americans have been invited to sign a "Patriot's Oath" whose wording places loyalty to the president before commitment to country; with the deadline coming the day after Thanksgiving, one couple resisting that invitation faces more pushback than they expect over the dinner table. Clearly coming from the left but happy to make characters of all political stripes look bad, the film is often hard to take, offering laughs that are rarely cathartic enough to compensate. A fine cast, including Tiffany Haddish, may help with audience appeal, but few viewers will ask for seconds.

Writer-director Barinholtz stars as Chris, a garden-variety liberal so annoyingly vocal about the direction his country is taking he'll have some viewers worrying, "I'm not that bad, am I?" Though the president responsible for Chris' suffering is unnamed, Chris certainly exhibits symptoms associated with Trump Despair Disorder: He's sporting a scraggly beard and a gut he didn't have a year ago, and no matter how it hurts, he can't stop watching TV news.

His wife Kai (Haddish) shares his political leanings but keeps a better handle on her outrage, perhaps because, as a black woman, she has had more practice. As they prepare to host Thanksgiving for Chris's family, most of whom are right-leaning, she has to keep reminding her husband not to raise topics that will give everyone indigestion. She should know that's a lost cause.

Given the heavy-handed way Barinholtz sets the stage and draws his characters, conflict is inevitable. While Chris' parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) happily keep their opinions to themselves, his preppie brother's girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) is less committed to familial harmony. An apparent graduate of the Ann Coulter Charm Academy, she brags bout "mixing it up" on social media with "haters and losers." It's clear Chris is just the kind of loser she has in mind, and the two go at each other loudly.

Confronted in his home by outright enemies, Chris is also having to realize his allies aren't as righteous as he thought: Given what they assume will be the downsides of not signing the Oath, his friends have given in and signed; even his sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) swallowed her pride and signed on, believing she had to in order to protect her children.

(Though authorities claim there will be no punishment for not signing, they will publicize the list of those who do, describing it as "a white pages of people we can count on," and offering perks like a tax credit to signers. Surely, widespread persecution of non-Oathers is not far behind. Cops have shot at protesters, and some lefties have disappeared mysteriously.)

Around the time viewers worry they can't endure any more of the dinner-table stridency, the film takes a turn: Thanksgiving is interrupted when two officers of a DHS branch called the "Citizens' Protection Unit" (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) stop by, claiming to have heard that Chris is interfering with someone's right to sign the Oath. They're not arresting him; they don't have a warrant to search his house. But their continued requests to speak privately with Chris sound an awful lot like threats.

The Oath now becomes an increasingly tense variation on the home-invasion story, in which one or more people may well get killed. As ideals are tested and allegiances shift, the screenplay offers some of its more on-target lines — as when Kai gives Chris a reality check or two, allowing Haddish to break out some of the attitude she's been mostly hiding under a supportive-wife smile.

The action grows increasingly compelling, thanks in large part to Magnussen's fascist coolness. But the stakes would be higher if Barinholtz had set things up with more finesse, drawing more believable characters instead of hammering home a point most of us have learned over and over in the social media era: A person can be on the right side of every issue and still be insufferable.

Production companies: QC Entertainment, 23/34
Distributor: QC Entertainment/Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions
Cast: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Max Greenfield, Jon Lovett
Director-screenwriter: Ike Barinholtz
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Raymond Mansfield, Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, Andrew C. Robinson
Executive producers: Edward H. Hamm Jr., Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Murtha
Director of photography: Cary Lalonde
Production designer: Tom Lisowski
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Editor: Jack Price
Composer: Bret Mazur
Casting director: Jennifer Cooper
Venue: LA Film Festival (Gala)

Rated R, 93 minutes