The Oath is a cutting indictment of all sides, reserving the most resentment for itself—or at least for writer-director Ike Barinholtz, who makes a dark comedy about a news-obsessed upper-middle-class woke white man, an identity which many of us both claim and resent ourselves for claiming. Which is why, even if you don’t fulfill all of the preceding quantifiers, the film can feel so painfully, hilariously relatable: It’s about being angry all the time when you have no real reason to be—about seeing the world so cynically you make the lives of everyone around you, everyone you love, just that much more miserable.
Chris isn’t a bad guy, either. Barinholtz plays him in The Oath as he did the dad in Blockers: a genuine person just trying to do what’s right for his family, bound every now and then to lose control, to make mistakes, but otherwise a decent adult human being. Chris witnesses the world around him devolve into political madness, goes to protests every now and then and goes to his office job every day, addicted to his phone and cable news, wishing everything weren’t so wrong and unfair and generally flabbergasted when other people, especially his family members, don’t agree. Still, he’s got a loving wife (Tiffany Haddish, whose performance consistently grounds the movie’s hyperbole), a bright daughter (Priah Ferguson) and a beautiful suburban house big enough to host his family over Thanksgiving—a holiday which happens to fall on the day before the deadline for signing the so-called “Loyalty Oath,” declaring one’s fealty to the faceless President of the United States. Barinholtz seems to understand—especially in how quickly his naturalistic studio comedy devolves into bleak violence—that not only are many of us pretty much terrified of how closely disaster looms, but that such a contrived situation, overtly fascistic but hilariously couched as a way to get some easy tax benefits, would have five years ago seemed too ridiculous to ever happen. Today? Sure, why not.
Chris’s family is traditional dad Hank (Chris Ellis) and doting mom (Nora Dunn); Chris’s campus conservative brother Pat (Ike’s brother Jon Barinholtz) and Tomi Lahren-like girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner); and Chris’s sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein), towing with her an assortment of nuclear family members (including her sick husband, played by Jay Duplass, who is barely in the movie and the audience can infer will serve as the deus ex machina), and like her brother, a lefty with little to really lose. As everyone arrives at Chris’s and deep-seated arguments over political divides find plenty of fuel in the impending deadline for signing the Oath, Chris discovers more and more about the supposed ideals of his family members, his self-righteousness eventually exploding and ruining everyone’s holiday. He, like so many of us, can’t let anything the fuck go.
When Chris finally snaps and Black Friday dawns, Barinholtz plunges the film into an increasingly scary, bloody scenario, all the while wondering if the ostensibly good things Chris is doing—holding his family accountable for their bad beliefs—actually helps anyone. When two government agents (think ICE in both professionalism and sublimated masculine rage) enter the house, Chris’s nightmares start coming true, and The Oath’s intent comes into similarly precise focus. In this indecent world, what makes for a decent person? Meanwhile, John Cho’s brain leaks out of his ear, and Billy Magnussen sports a sociopathic mustache with aplomb. Both prove themselves perfectly cast, as they have been quite a bit lately.
Toward the end of the film, the television announces comments from “Vice President Hogan,” and for a moment one wonders if Barinholtz got a cameo from Hulk Hogan. Instead, when he steps in front of the cameras, VP Hogan is a very normal-looking old white man, one more cinematic avatar for bland capitalistic and not the easy punchline to an ever-tightening tone amidst a deeply unsettling farce. If only the film’s resolution were so banal. Barinholtz leans into a cleaner kind of happy ending, never forcing Chris into some truly gnarly decisions. Which feels like a cop-out: Things will not get better if we maintain normalcy, and optimism is no longer solution enough to the apocalypse. Though The Oath ends on an odd, winking montage of some very American imagery, admitting that maybe the happy ending is just as fake and unearned as America’s patriotic superiority—that such a Hollywood happy ending is an intrinsically American thing—it never gets quite as dark as it could. Give it another five years, maybe.
Still, Barinholtz directs the film with compassion and a trust in his actors that allows scene after scene to breathe, settling in for a peaceful moment or holding the cut for one extra uncomfortable beat to let an awkward encounter linger. More than anything, The Oath buzzes with fatigue, with the knowledge of one’s inevitable responsibility to do something, anything, to stem the tide of unpleasantness to come—which is a really tiring thing to think about in itself. We just don’t feel like we have the energy for this shit anymore, and for Barinholtz to capture so well, with only his first film, that specific, quietly universal exhaustion of being alive in 2018—that’s the film’s real feel-good ending.
Director: Ike Barinholtz
Writer: Ike Barinholtz
Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Barinholtz, Nora Dunn, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, Meredith Hagner, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Jay Duplass
Release Date: October 12, 2018 (select cities); October 19, 2018 (wide)
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.