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.