2018, R, 93 min. Directed by Ike Barinholtz. Starring Ike Barinholtz, Jon Barinholtz, Billy Magnussen, Tiffany Haddish, Max Greenfield, John Cho, Chris Ellis, Carrie Brownstein, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Nora Dunn.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 19, 2018
It’s notoriously difficult to successfully straddle the razor-thin line between comedy and horror. Director Barinholtz’s ambitious feature debut nonetheless scores a preposterously entertaining trifecta by adding ripped-from-the-headline partisan divisiveness into the mix with barely a misstep. Not since Eli Roth’s faux-Grindhouse trailer Thanksgiving has a holiday-set film elicited a laughter-to-cringe ratio so effectively while at the same time strip-mining the zeitgeist’s political contretemps down to the bloody marrow. (Notably, a trio of producers from last year’s equally socially relevant Oscar winner Get Out were involved in this production.) In short, this is exactly the right movie to remedy your clan’s post-celebratory meal, tryptophan-induced food coma. That said and for safety’s sake, you might want to pat down crazy Uncle Carl in case he’s licensed to carry and packing heat. It’s that kind of movie.
MADtv alum Barinholtz, who stars, also scripted The Oath’s gonzo, sociopolitical storyline. He also assembled a uniformly exceptional cast whose enthusiasm for the project is readily apparent. Set in a near future that feels uncomfortably believable, the titular oath is a government-mandated patriot’s pledge of fealty to the sitting president. Well, not exactly mandated, but very highly encouraged. Americans are given one year to sign, with the deadline falling on the day after turkey day: not so much black Friday as bleak Friday. Cut to the following year’s family festivities, where left-leaning biracial couple Chris (Ike Barinholtz) and Kai (Haddish) are expecting the parents, in-laws, and siblings, among them Chris’ staunchly Republican brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and his vacuous girlfriend Abbie (Hagner), their sister Alice (Portlandia’s Brownstein), and mom (Dunn) and pop (Ellis). Hot-tempered Chris and the more even-keeled Kai have vowed not to sign the oath, but as the television in the background blares alarming footage of government goon squads putting down mass protests and arresting noteworthy resistance members, this blacker-than-black family comedy inches ever forward into outright thriller. With the third-act arrival of two enforcers from the “Citizens Protection Unit” (an inspired pairing of Cho and Magnussen), the annual gathering shifts from tensely hilarious to outright bloodthirsty.
Echoes of the Purge franchise are in evidence but Barinholtz’s film reins that sort of chaos in – up to a point. The endless sibling sparring between Chris and Pat (there’s a sweet “fuck you” battle that must be seen to be appreciated) is played for laughs until, suddenly, it isn’t. For a first-time director like Barinholtz, The Oath is more than impressive. Tonally, it goes all over the place, but that only serves to keep the audience as off-balance as the characters onscreen. No matter what your political affiliation may be, this Orwellian farce is a candidate for President Trump’s least favorite film of the year.
For an interview with Barinholtz and producer Ray Mansfield, read "The New Political Battleground," Oct. 18.