The Oath, the writing and directing debut of comic actor Ike Barinholtz, serves as a reminder that the suppression of dissent is a step towards authoritarianism. Moreover, it argues unsubtly that this reminder is most timely for U.S. audiences. Barinholtz never calls out Donald Trump or the Republican Party by name, but he’s clearly targeting the authoritarian leanings of both. The film is all but defined by its anger at the Trump regime—making it an informative document of the era, regardless of its artistic quality—and one thing that’s admirable about The Oath is that Barinholtz never apologizes for this. He doesn’t try to make the antiauthoritarian characters seem noble, nor does he spend much time proposing solutions to the dangers of Trumpism in particular or authoritarianism in general. What Barinholtz does is speak through two popular genres, comedy and horror, to appeal directly to American spectators, acknowledging their anger and encouraging them to act on it constructively.
The movie announces its urgency from the start; it spends little time on exposition. The opening scene finds an upper-middle-class American couple, Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish), learning from TV news that a fictional president has introduced a new “Patriot’s Oath” he wants wants every U.S. citizen to sign within the next ten months. By signing it, citizens declare loyalty to the president and promise to report anyone who critiques him. A spokesperson for the government says that signing the oath isn’t legally required but that those who do will receive tax breaks and other, unspecified benefits. Barinholtz doesn’t establish the political goals of the administration apart from getting everyone to sign the oath, but one can assume that they’re a lot like Trump’s—that is, amassing as much power as possible and wielding it cruelly over its opponents. It’s indicative of the fictional regime’s cruelty that it sets the deadline for signing as the day after Thanksgiving, thereby transforming a time for togetherness into one of self-interest and dread. (It’s practically Grinch-like.)
Chris and Kai agree not to sign the oath, laugh off the president, and conclude the evening by making love. Barinholtz then cuts to ten months later. It’s the week before Thanksgiving and the liberal couple has invited Chris’s largely conservative family to spend the holiday at their suburban home. The extended family has pledged not to talk about politics when they’re together, something Chris—an arrogant hothead who compulsively checks his cell phone for political updates—finds difficult to do. A natural comedian, Barinholtz scores plenty of laughs from Chris’s hypersensitive, self-righteous behavior (in a recent interview with the website Collider, the filmmaker said he’d be a bad satirist if he didn’t). This communicates the message—and one of The Oath‘s most perceptive observations—that certain left-wing types are as responsible as their right-wing counterparts for the erosion of American political discourse. In presenting the family reunion through Chris’s high-strung perspective, Barinholtz conveys the common frustration over our culture’s current inability to discuss politics politely.
The Oath doesn’t address the American right’s efforts to deligitimize its opponents through lies, hateful rhetoric, and outright voter suppression (not to mention the dilemma of how one responds politely to such tactics); Barinholtz is more concerned with how these efforts affect everyday life. In three significant early scenes, Chris observes heated confrontations in his neighborhood that nearly break out into violence: one on a suburban street corner, another in a supermarket, and a third in a restaurant. It’s only in the last of these confrontations that the aggressor reveals his anger to be politically motivated, yelling at a group of liberal restaurant patrons for being unpatriotic. Still, all of these scenes are alarming (Barinholtz pointedly drops his satirical tone when they occur), as they dramatize a society on the verge of breakdown. This sense of impending chaos carries over to Chris’s interactions with his parents, younger brother, and the younger brother’s girlfriend, all of whom support the president and admit to signing the oath. The family’s efforts to ignore the social climate can be funny, though the situation is upsetting as well—by denying what’s going on beyond their immediate vicinity, the family submits to self-censorship, virtually suppressing their identities in the process.
With its frequent one-liners and bland, sunny aesthetic, the first half of The Oath feels a bit like a TV sitcom, and this approach instills a sense of complacency in the audience; one can laugh at the dysfunctional family even when they descend into arguments. Chris breaks the family pledge big time during Thanksgiving dinner, lashing out both at the conservative members, who shrug off news of the violent suppression of an anti-government demonstration in another city, and his liberal sister and brother-in-law, who admit to having signed the oath out of fear of being ostracized. Barinholtz can’t resist inserting jokes even into this scene (and the cast, with its superb comic timing, delivers them expertly), but they’re overwhelmed by his character’s anger, which carries traces of betrayal and powerlessness. The dark tone sets the stage for the nightmare that follows, as The Oath transforms into a political horror movie.
The day after Thanksgiving, two volunteer officers from something called the Citizens’ Protection Unit show up at Chris and Kai’s house and ask to interrogate Chris for supposedly preventing someone from signing the Patriot’s Oath. Chris refuses to comply, and thesituation escalates scarily. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that every member of the family is forced to decide whether they really support the government unconditionally or whether they believe in resisting it to protect a relative from cruel, unconstitutional treatment. Their moral dilemma takes on surprising, genuine weight and blows a hole through the film’s sitcomlike veneer. Barinholtz savvily manages the turn from comedy to horror, gradually giving pressing expression to the fear of authoritarianism underlying much anti-Trump sentiment. No one ever compares the CPU officers to members of the Gestapo, nor do they have to; both officers—one eerily calm, the other a loose cannon—inspire this association through their insistence with and contempt for everyone around them.
I found The Oath to conclude on an unsatisfying note, as Barinholtz wraps up his concerns far too neatly; the film, up to this point, thrives on the sweepingness of its anger and fear. Yet Barinholtz seems to recognize this too. The Oath is above all a provocation—it forces viewers to take sides and articulate what’s bothering them in American life. The ending is basically an exhortation to the audience not just to continue the film’s arguments outside the theater, but to strive for a more civil and pluralistic culture in which cautionary tales like The Oath aren’t necessary. Leaving the film, I was reminded of the final title card of a classic provocation of American cinema, Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957): “The end of the Story can only be written by you!” v