We Will Never Be Loyals: Barinholtz Gets Guignol in Acerbic Political Satire
Actor/comedian Ike Barinholtz uses gleeful absurdity to provide some food for thought on the current state of political affairs with his directorial debut The Oath, which utilizes the considerable talents of Tiffany Haddish to relay the ripple effects of modern day fascism. Like a mirthful, Kafkaesque comedic take on The Purge franchise, Barinholtz creates a fictional governmental policy used to ensnare left-wing liberals into political occlusion by offering a significant tax rebate. Of course, what it represents is something much more morally insidiousness, and participation allows enhanced leverage to the onslaught of conservative, right-wing agendas. Keeping the totalitarian ramifications of his scenario on the film’s periphery via various news soundbites and headline clickbait, Thanksgiving provides the fitting template for a country perilously divided in sanctimonious ethical struggles, where brother fights brother in a vicious cycle of words and wills.
Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are a happily married suburban couple focused on raising their daughter despite the troubling political climate. At the beginning of the year, the President of the United States engaged a new loyalty oath for the nation’s citizens, which would allow for a sizeable tax rebate to motivate participation. Vowing to forego the economic bait as a way to passively rebel against the current administration, Chris and Kai find themselves to be the minority as friends and neighbors quickly begin to cave into the peripheral consequences of not signing the oath, which includes being investigated by a new arm of Homeland Security, the CPU, as well as being victimized by proponents of the oath, allowed to aggressively confront its critics. But everything’s about to come to a head for the staunchly liberal Chris, whose extended family is about to visit for the holidays, all who have signed the oath.
Thanksgiving has long been a familiar cinematic staple of strained familial ties, usually buoyed by some sort of optimism despite significant dysfunction, as in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) or Ang Lee’s chilly period drama The Ice Storm (1997). Barinholtz exchanges melodrama for horror film tactics in this violent devolvement of rationality, with the American turkey day tradition turning into the politically themed equivalent of Lord of the Flies.
If Barinholtz gleefully sinks his teeth into the caricature of the white liberal SJW whose uncontrollable impulses make him an easy target for the cocksure smarm of the far right, he allows co-star Tiffany Haddish to be the real surprise. The comedian, best known for her delirious improvisational skills which elevated her breakout hit Girls Trip (2017), and utilized effectively once more in the upcoming Night School, initially plays the straight man.
A cool, calm, and collected voice of reason, Barinholtz eventually unleashes the fury of Haddish at key moments, but allows her to be the only real composite of humanity under duress. It’s a stellar bit of counter-programming for Haddish, whose fans and detractors think they already know what to expect from her. At the same time, one wishes Barinholtz had allowed for some more sardonic commentary on racism, considering it’s the underlying tenet of the United States of America.
While politics and family dinners make for noxious bedfellows, The Oath is perhaps more successful as a rough composite of toxic masculinity. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, which is exactly what happens to the well-meaning but ill-advised actions of Chris, whose white privilege has dangerously melded with self-righteousness and exposed his family to considerable harm. Perhaps to the film’s detriment, this isn’t mined as expertly or seriously as it should have been. And yet, The Oath arrives with a heftier punch than something like the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis comedy The Campaign (2012).
Several supporting cast members each grab a few laughs, from Nora Dunn’s obituary expert mother, to Meredith Hagner’s obnoxious Abbie, meant to reflect the political opposite of Barinholtz’s Chris. And arriving like some troubled Travis Bickle progeny is an uncomfortable Billy Magnusson as an ex-military Homeland Security watchdog opposite the mild-mannered John Cho for some troubling if nonsensical commentary on the slippery slope of fascistic tendencies.
Although The Oath ultimately doesn’t live up to its convictions about our contemporary political dystopia, it’s at least attempting to grapple with a nightmarish but potential worst case scenario using parameters which were once fantastic fabrications but now palpable prospects.