×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: Ike Barinholtz’s ‘The Oath’

Ike Barinholtz, best known for 'madTV' and 'The Mindy Project,' turns his comedic knives on our divisive political climate in this daring black comedy.

Director:
Ike Barinholtz
With:
Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish
Release Date:
Oct 12, 2018

Rated R  1 hour 33 minutes

Official Site: http://roadsideattractions.com/filmography/the-oath/

Nothing spoils a family gathering quite like politics, and no movie has captured the way such debates can turn ugly quite like Ike Barinholtz’s “The Oath,” an impressively out-there feature debut in which no-win arguments over a divisive new government policy escalate into a full-blown hostage crisis, turning what should have been a mild-mannered Thanksgiving weekend into a dark and potentially deadly misunderstanding. Part satire, part thriller — and only partway satisfying the potential of a film so boldly overt in its critique of the zeitgeist — “The Oath” kicks off with the all-too-plausible premise that the White House is encouraging all Americans to sign a statement of loyalty to the president, then flashes forward to just days before the deadline.

The administration has given citizens until Black Friday to pledge their allegiance, all but ensuring that families whose political views don’t align perfectly are in for the most awkward Turkey Day of their lives. Technically, signing the oath is optional, although there have already been consequences for its most vocal opponents, as a special task force called the Citizens Protection Unit, or CPU, has been rounding up — and making disappear — troublemakers at rallies around the country. Those who support the president (who is never seen but is unambiguously Republican) wonder why anyone wouldn’t sign, unless they’re a terrorist or downright anti-American, while liberals like Chris Powell (Barinholtz) — a corporate, comfortably middle-class hipster with an African-American wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish) — feel it’s their patriotic duty to abstain.

As outrageous as the idea may sound, Barinholtz’s basic concept doesn’t seem so far-fetched in post-9/11 America: The oath may as well be the first domino to fall in the establishment of the sort of police state seen in dystopian novels such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “1984.” As it happens, the movie doesn’t even need something so irksome as the oath for the central situation to be valid. Such heated conversations are already happening between parents and children, and driving wedges between siblings, which provides Barinholtz the sociological opportunity to explore at what point those debates turn violent.

As in “Get Out,” another stinging political allegory that delivers its payload in the Trojan horse of a genre movie (and which has three producers in common with “The Oath”), this ostensibly liberal-minded critique doesn’t let its left-leaning characters off easy, which should make the viewing experience more inviting for everyone — provided that your idea of fun is watching people with differing opinions scream at one another between helpings of mashed potatoes. For many, that may hit too close to home.

It’s telling that Barinholtz — a former “Mad TV” cast member whose subsequent screen persona has been the lovable goof — casts himself as the angry guy who refuses to recognize when to shut up. Meanwhile, with her assertive, no-nonsense personality, Haddish makes an ideal counterbalance to her increasingly disempowered white husband. For someone who prides himself on being open-minded, Chris is downright intolerant of views other than his own, repeatedly embarrassing himself by going overboard with his political correctness.

Whether satirical or serious, that’s a fine line to walk at a moment of such watch-what-you-say hypersensitivity, and one the screenplay dares to tread, relying on fellow family members to reflect Chris’ extremism (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis as his parents, Carrie Brownstein as on-his-side sister Alice, Jay Duplass as her barely-seen husband). Even if the character is an exaggeration, Barinholtz has admitted that this is a version of himself, the kind of 21st-century news addict who feels like he’s living in a horror movie, so he must have figured, why not tweak it just one step further and make it so? That surely explains the film’s harsh, high-contrast feel, which is pretty hilarious to see applied to a Restoration Hardware-style home environment — an aesthetic DP Cary Lalonde pushes so far that blood looks tar black and even friendly faces appear angry.

Here, the horror element starts with a knock on the door, the day after Thanksgiving, when two CPU agents show up asking to speak to Chris. Peter (John Cho) and Mason (Billy Magnussen) aren’t police officers exactly, and they don’t have a warrant, but under the circumstances, they don’t give him much choice. And even though Chris basically went berserk the night before during dinner — calling his brother Pat a “Nazi” and a “moron” (Pat is played by Barinholtz’s real-life brother Jon), and disrespectfully failing to even call Pat’s new girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) by her proper name — his family instantly take his side when confronted with this ambiguous threat. When a skirmish breaks out, the lines are clearly drawn, with Chris and his family waving guns and tasers and the CPU duo tied up with nowhere to go.

“I told you so: One day they would come to the house,” Chris announces, practically smug about his paranoia coming to pass. Still, it’s smart to keep the action almost entirely confined to this small domestic space, which allows Barinholtz to focus our attention on how such discord affects a close-knit group of people, the way “Signs” used an alien invasion to examine the microcosm of a family, or 2012 indie “It’s a Disaster” studied how friends hold up in the face of an off-screen nuclear meltdown.

But it should also be said that Barinholtz doesn’t know quite where to take the film once the CPU officers show up. Magnussen plays Mason as a psychotic, so overzealous that his character trumps whatever metaphor he’s supposed to represent, while Cho is underused, as his character lapses in and out of consciousness (Jay Duplass is even less used, sitting out most of the movie with the flu). It’s not clear whether “The Oath” wants to be a right-wing home-invasion thriller à la “Straw Dogs” or a shrewd progressive satire of the “All in the Family” variety, falling short on both counts.

In theory, the CPU officers have the upper hand here, since whatever happens in Chris’ living room, the authorities have the full power of the government behind them — the realization of which would make the situation far scarier than the panicky, what-would-you-do scenario we get instead. Barinholtz relies on a massive twist (some might call it a fantasy) to untangle the mess, and while that solution miraculously works within the scope of the film, “The Oath” still feels like an opportunity missed. Here’s a project that had the nerve to address these tensions in a megaplex environment, only to squander them on a standoff it pretends could be so glibly resolved.

Film Review: Ike Barinholtz's 'The Oath'

Reviewed at Wilshire Screening Room, Los Angeles, Sept. 20, 2018. (In LA Film Festival — Gala.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: A Roadside Attractions release, presented with QC Entertainment, Topic Studios, of a QC Entertainment, 23/34 Prods. production. Producers: Sean McKittrick, Raymond Mansfield, Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, Andrew C. Robinson. Executive producers: Edward H. Hamm Jr., Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Murtha.

Crew: Director, writer: Ike Barinholtz. Camera (color, widescreen): Cary Lalonde. Editor: Jack Price. Music: Bret Mazur.

With: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Magner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Max Greenfield.

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content