The Oath is a clumsy, but ambitious directorial debut for Barinholtz and provides a blisteringly satirical examination of the modern political divide.
Comedian/actor Ike Barinholtz tries his hand at directing a feature-length film for the first time on The Oath, an original movie that he also wrote and produced. The Oath was further backed by three of the same producers who worked on the Oscar-winning Get Out and this summer's critical darling BlackKkKlansman, which is all the more noteworthy since Barinholtz's project (like those films) unfolds as a "social thriller" that combines bleak humor with pointed sociopolitical satire. Barinholtz's own entry in that growing subgenre isn't as strong as either of those movies, but it's a notable debut all the same and very much has its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. The Oath is a clumsy, but ambitious directorial debut for Barinholtz and provides a blisteringly satirical examination of the modern political divide.
The events of The Oath are set in motion when the U.S. government announces plans for The Patriot's Oath, an oath of loyalty to the country's President that its citizens are encouraged, but not required, to sign. Those who agree to "The Oath" are offered a tax deduction as incentive, with the deadline to sign set to expire ten months after the initial announcement - more specifically, on the day after the next Thanksgiving, aka. Black Friday. Suffice it to say, liberal political news junkie Chris (Barinholtz) and his equally progressive wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) aren't interested and refuse to even consider taking "The Oath" from the get-go.
As the deadline looms closer and the government begins to deploy officers from the Citizens Protection Unit or CPU (an off-shoot of the Department of Homeland Security) to counter the growing numbers of protests against "The Oath", more people start to cave in and sign, rather than risk bringing harm to themselves and their loved ones. Chris nevertheless refuses to budge on the issue, even knowing that it will lead to increased tension (that is, even more tension than there already is) between himself and the rest of his family over Thanksgiving dinner. However, not even Chris is prepared for just how intense this year's holiday get-together will become.
Barinholtz's script for The Oath starts off as a Twilight Zone-esque social satire before then evolving into a dark comedy about a family gathered for Thanksgiving during its second act and, ultimately, turning into a single-location thriller in its final third. For the large part, though, the film succeeds in transitioning organically from one subgenre to another and avoids feeling episodic in its overarching structure. The Oath is similarly effective in establishing its ominous yet off-kilter tone from the very beginning, thus allowing it to smoothly alternate from being awkwardly funny to comically horrifying throughout the remainder of its narrative. It's a challenging tightrope walk but, for the most part, Barinholtz and his collaborators succeed in keeping their balance and avoid giving viewers emotional whiplash in the process.
From a technical perspective, The Oath likewise does a commendable job of bringing its low-budget proceedings to life in a cinematically engaging fashion. While Barinholtz's film lacks the slick technical flourishes that films like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman brought to the table, it certainly has an idiosyncratic style of its own - one that includes comedically foreboding (and gigantic) intertitles, as well as dramatic music cues by composer Bret "Epic" Mazur that are equally silly-scary in their presentation. The film's cinematography by DP Cary Lalonde (a first assistant camera on The Cabin in the Woods and multiple X-Men movies) makes similar use of tight camera angles in order to create an increasingly suffocating atmosphere as its plot grows darker and darker. Together, these elements only further enhance the bitter satirical flavor that The Oath is clearly going for.
Although Barinholtz stretches his wings further as a storyteller than an actor here, he nevertheless delivers a respectable funny-dramatic turn as Chris, a passionate fellow who all too often fails to maintain his composure when it comes to talking politics. The Oath also does a nice job of quietly calling attention to how Chris (as a white man) enjoys social privileges that his black wife does not and, thus, is more inclined to shoot his mouth off in the same situations where Kai knows she has to keep a level head for her and her family's sake. As a result, Haddish gets to show off more of her dramatic range as an actor here, while at the same time putting her well-established comedy chops to appropriate use whenever the scene calls for it. While Barinholtz and Haddish are The Oath's main attraction for related reasons, its supporting cast members (which includes Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, Nora Dunn, Meredith Hagner and Barinholtz's real-life brother Jon) all get their moments to shine as the members of Chris' family and/or their significant others.
Unfortunately, The Oath's first half ends up being noticeably stronger overall than its second. More specifically, the film starts to run into problems after Chris and Kai's (hellish) Thanksgiving dinner is interrupted by a pair of CPU agents - namely, the reasonable Agent Peter (John Cho) and the borderline unhinged Agent Mason (Billy Magnussen). Ultimately, The Oath writes itself into a bit of a corner and fails to resolve its various plot/character threads and larger themes without resorting to some ham-fisted plot twists and turns along the way. The movie thankfully avoids going completely off the rails, but its subtext and the social commentary that it was going for winds up muddled nonetheless - resulting in a conclusion that feels too convenient, given everything that came before it.
Even with these missteps, however, Barinholtz manages to stick the landing with The Oath and, thusly, get his movie-making career started on a respectable note. Since The Oath spends more of its energy on examining contemporary political discourse and less on making overt references to real-world politicians (though, of course, there are parallels between the film's universe and our own), it may even provide some catharsis for those moviegoers who are in the mood for some openly political entertainment. At the same time, it should be noted that Barinholtz's satire doesn't at all shy away from exploring uncomfortable social exchanges and familial interactions (see again, those Get Out and BlacKkKlansman comparisons). In that regard, those who are interested in seeing The Oath might want to approach it as a test run for their own Thanksgiving get-together later this year.
The Oath is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 93 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, violence and some drug use.
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- The Oath (2018) release date: Oct 12, 2018