Family Thanksgivings are always awkward, but especially so when the traditional familial arguments descend into a violent showdown with rogue Homeland Security agents. So unfolds the apocryphal scenario in The Oath, which envisions a hypothetical future in which our current president’s dalliance with totalitarianism becomes functional policy and citizens are given a deadline to sign a pledge of loyalty to not merely the country but the administration. Such a notion would have been considered dystopian a few years back, so maybe now we are inching closer to dystopia since the concept now feels more immediate, and therefore more frightening. It’s odd, then, that The Oath abandons the idea almost as soon as it’s established, sidestepping the potent political implications and going the route of family drama run disastrously, violently amok.
For all its potential as an incendiary satire of the American political divide, Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut seems more interested, be it intentionally or by accident, as an exploration of awkward family dynamics taken to the extreme. Since the divergence of politics and family conversations is among the most treacherous occurrences of every holiday season, it’s even stranger that Barinholtz’s screenplay leaves little room for salient observations on the fraught political spectrum across an extended family, especially with the concept of “The Oath” as a bulwark. Instead, the film turns into a hyper-tense, tunnel-vision chamber thriller that forgets its base concept.
Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish are Chris and Kai, a progressive couple angered by the announcement of a formal state-sponsored loyalty pledge and frightened by the future implications of such an explicitly nationalist directive. Chris is on especially high alert, constantly fretting over cable news and political podcasts, living in a haze of outrage. As the post-Thanksgiving deadline for signing the “Patriot’s Oath” looms, the couple welcomes Chris’ extended family for the annual holiday gathering. Collectively, they fill the spectrum of irksome conservative types – his parents use the “you promised we wouldn’t talk politics” line to shield their implicit support for regressive policies, while his brother is a jet-setting MAGA bro whose new girlfriend is a Tomi Lahren doppelganger both in look and attitude. The table is set – pun fully intended – for a Thanksgiving week of unprecedented politically-charged awkwardness.
The Oath’s first act plays that awkwardness to the hilt, with passive-aggressive digs occasionally giving way to expletive-laden arguments about whether the oath is an act of patriotism or the onset of a dictatorship. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, there’s a knock at the door. Two agents from the “CPU,” an upstart division within Homeland Security, want to question Chris based on a complaint that he attempted to persuade someone from signing the oath. John Cho and Billy Magnussen play the agents with a good cop-bad cop dynamic, Cho attempting to keep the peace while Magnussen constantly baits with partisan talking points. Chris refuses to be questioned and the agents refuse to leave, and so begins a standoff that takes the film down a rabbit hole from which it cannot escape.
An intrusion of a citizen’s private property by a fringe arm of the government intending to question said citizen for having what amounts to a private discussion is thoroughly Orwellian, but The Oath isn’t interested in probing that idea beyond using it as the inciting incident for a hostage scenario with no clear exit strategy. All vestiges of political satire vanish and we’re left with a fraught chamber drama of moment-by-moment moral quandaries. Maybe that’s the point – that we are mired in surface political gridlock and only when confronted with a legitimate physical threat to our freedoms can we let the politics fall away and actually wrestle with the morality. But that takes a lot of extrapolation for a film in which the characters have little clue how to dig themselves out of a situational hole, and the screenplay is hard-pressed to offer them any good ideas.
Barinholtz, who is always a refreshingly funny on-screen presence, is similarly engaging as a writer-director; if he lacks a thematic focus, he still certainly possesses a unique voice. The Oath operates on a perpetual hair trigger, moving as close to the brink of total darkness as possible while still managing to diffuse any given moment with dry humor. Each sequence dares the audience to move one step closer to the brink of tragedy but still chuckle at the appropriate cue. It’s almost as though Barinholtz set out to satirize the political landscape and eventually became more interested in dissecting the scene-by-scene dynamics of a standard thriller. Those two aims don’t align well in The Oath, but if Barinholtz hones his focus next time around, he might be onto something.