Think your family Thanksgiving is rough? So long as there aren’t any gunshot wounds, you’re having a better time than the cast of the unhinged satire The Oath, which gathers a fractious family for a good old-fashioned shout-off during a fictitious political flash point. The U.S. president has signed into law a “Patriot’s Oath” of loyalty to the nation and the office of commander-in-chief, and while it’s not compulsory, people who refuse to sign it have a funny way of disappearing. This plays like a nightmare scenario to liberal-minded spouses Chris (Ike Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish), but his sister (Carrie Brownstein), brother (Jon Barinholtz), and parents (Nora Dunn) aren’t so morally rigid. The arrival of two quietly menacing para-governmental agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) turns the heat in this pressure cooker up to explosive highs, and the farcical violence that breaks out makes interparty animosity grimly literal.
This fire starter marks the debut of Ike Barinholtz as a feature director and writer, having cut his teeth in production on TV and accrued plenty of experience on the other side of the camera. Fascinated with the workings of politics from a young age, he’s translated that curiosity into a strange fusion: a romp of ambivalence, playful about despair, grisly until it’s hopeful. It’s a gutsy gambit for Barinholtz’s first time out, but he speaks with the assurance of someone who’s thought through the implications of his work. The afternoon before The Oath’s premiere in L.A., Barinholtz spoke with Vulture about navigating both sides–ism and soy boy cucks, directing his brother, and getting blocked by a certain nationwide chain of sandwich stores on Twitter.
I read that you had political aspirations when you were younger.
Y’know, I’m from Chicago, where everyone votes twice. My dad was marginally involved in local politics, and I have very fond memories of Election Day, going to the polling places, talking to people and eating free donuts, just being enamored of the whole process. Whichever politician I was there to see is probably in jail now, but I saw him talk with the constituents and they could talk with him, everyone with such hope in their eyes. I had a very romanticized view of it, and thought, Oh, I’d just love to be part of that. As the years went on, though, I realized it might be better to make fun of it.
This being your first feature as a director-writer, had you planned on doing something like The Oath for long?
I knew I wanted to make a movie. I was lucky enough to get to direct some episodes of The Mindy Project and I loved it, being able to take your point of view and show it to someone else, so I figured the next step was doing that with a movie. I was a little bit down the road on another idea, and then the 2016 election happened, and I was at dinner with my family. My mom, my brother and I all got in an argument, and things were slightly heated, when it struck me that we all voted for the same person pretty enthusiastically. It made me think, Holy shit, if this is what’s happening at a friendly dinner table, what’s it like at the other tables around the country? I started talking to friends of mine as they were going home, talking to my family, and it was clear that the maxim of “no politics at the dinner table” had become impossible to follow. I wanted to take that week of Thanksgiving, where everyone’s in the house and you’re already stressed, and introduce a semi-compulsory government program to ratchet up the tension.
This is obviously a film about politics, but the way you talk about it, it sounds like it’s more about politics in the abstract than anything specific going on right now.
Absolutely. I’ll say that it’s very much inspired by some of the things going on right now. If we had President Hillary Clinton right now, I don’t know that I would’ve ended up writing this movie. But I really don’t think it’s about anyone in particular, or even about politics, per se. It’s about family, and how in the current climate, people’s normal, regular, smart brains are breaking. People don’t know how to handle this in terms of their interpersonal relationships. Because the movie has political overtones, people might say, ‘Ah, politics, I get enough of that when I watch the news!’ But it’s more about our intake, and how we react to it.
To take things a step back from the specifics of Trump, then, do you consider this to be a partisan film? You’re a liberal, raised in a liberal household, and the movie seems geared against the Republican-coded characters played by your brother Jon and Meredith Hagner.
I don’t think of it as a partisan film, and I’ll tell you why: While I take a side, which is the stance that the bad things that are happening will eventually reach citizens’ homes one day, I really wanted to show both sides, and absurdity of each one. My character Chris is the most liberal character in the movie, and he’s also an insufferable jerk. He alienates his family and friends and co-workers and ruins the holiday dinner all because he’s obsessed. There’s a version of this movie where my character’s the perfect liberal and he’s well-behaved and he’s right, just an upstanding guy, and I don’t want to see that movie. There’s no comedy there. I want to show people warts and all, how we’re acting, even how those in the right might not act like it. The movie ultimately has an optimistic ending, which is how I feel about the country. But I think America is bigger and stronger than one person or one party or one Congress. If there’s a message in the movie, it is to try our best not to let external forces permanently disable meaningful relationships in our lives.
I’ve seen a lot of articles to this same effect, and then there’s always a response on Twitter that the sins of one side outweigh the other — that any liberal tendency towards self-righteousness or other unpleasantness isn’t nearly as bad as being a fascist.
If I’m doing this right, that frustration will be that the liberal character behaves badly, but then he’s proven right by the series of events. It turns out that [Billy Magnussen’s character] Mason really isn’t stable and Chris was right not to trust him. I can see people on the left criticizing this as being on a weighted scale, that everyone’s acting the same, but I do think there’s a difference. And I think I illustrate that, too; the character of Abby, who’s the definition of the Make America Great Again type, she’s so quick to call fake news, she’s the worst. I really wanted to show how everyone except Tiffany [Haddish]’s character handles themselves so poorly. I think it’s funny to watch a bunch of panicky idiots arguing with each other.
We see the cut from your character being fit with a full head of hair to the flash-forward, where he’s started to thin out and get a paunch. Do you see masculinity as being a key part of this psychosis we’re seeing on a national scale?
My goal with that bit was to show that there’s been some psychological wear and tear on Chris over time. You see someone’s mind-set through their physicality. It’s there when someone decides, “Hey, what’s the point of working out? Fuck all this, I’m gonna eat a cheesecake.” I’m definitely someone who adheres to that at times.
But yeah, in the story, I’m definitely furthest to the left and Mason is furthest to the right, basically neo-fascist. I see a lot of humor in the toxic masculinity on the right, where they make that feeling such a centerpiece. Even though it represents something very frightening and very real, there’s something undeniably funny about watching a grown man call someone a “soy boy cuck.” I was raised in a household with a proudly feminist mom and a dad who loved to cry at movies, so that paradigm of masculinity has always been kind of weird and foreign to me. It doesn’t exist in my head. But I know it’s out there, that someone might see this movie and despite everything, find Mason their favorite character.
“He rules! He’s the alpha.”
Exactly. Which I found out isn’t even a thing, in nature! I recently read an article that suggested the whole alpha-male theory doesn’t really apply to the animal kingdom in the way we initially understood it to. We personify animals, endow them with qualities we look for in people. But, yeah, we initially wanted to cast an older actor for the part of Mason, I was thinking someone like Michael Rooker, some craggy and tough. After Charlottesville, though, we saw that they were not old guys. They were young, and that creeped me out. I wanted to find someone who looked like that, angry and proud of their anger. The first time they get physical, Chris folds, he agrees to go outside. I’ll be the first to admit that when a confrontation gets physical with someone bigger than me, the instinct is to protect yourself and, in this instance, your family.
Being on Twitter, I can feel myself getting infected by the brain worms you were saying have started to make sane people crazy. What’s your best tactic for keeping them at bay?
I have recently learned the joy of logging off. It’s for the best that we treat Twitter like coffee: You have a cup in the morning, fire off a tweet, see what’s going on. Mid-morning, check back in for five minutes. And then like a decaf after dinner, you scroll a little before bed. I find that if you’re watching the news all day, like I was when I was writing this movie, with CNN and Fox News all day long, you’re going to hear the same things over and over again so many times your brain will start bleating them back at you. Even if you know they’re not true. It’s the same thing on Twitter. If you’re constantly logged on, you get wrapped up in it. I’ll lose myself, like, I just tweeted at the leader of the U.S. Senate to eat my ass! What has become of me? You gotta maintain a balance. It helps to read stuff longer than 140 characters.
Mike Huckabee blocked me, which was a surreal experience of pride and shame. Have you had any of these high-profile blockings?
Only a couple that I know of. The first is Sebastian Gorka, and I don’t even remember saying anything about him! One day, I saw Seth Rogen had tweeted something like “look at this guy, he blocked me,” and when I went to check, he had blocked me too. I think he must be going through all people he thinks of as Hollywood? If you’re spending your free time going out and mass blocking people who have never said anything to you, that’s too online. If you’re on the hunt for good blocks, you just gotta log off. And the other is Jimmy John’s, the sandwich place. Their owner is a big-game hunter, and I saw a photo of him posing with some of his kills and captioned it, “Oh, so that’s where they get their meat!” Instant block. Now I can’t tweet at Jimmy John’s! Luckily for me, I don’t like their sandwiches. I prefer Potbelly.
You direct your brother in this film as your character’s brother, and your dialogue is mostly arguments. Is this drawn from your dynamic in real life? How was it on set?
When I was writing the part and breaking the story, I knew the main combatants within the family would be me, my brother, and his girlfriend Abby. I knew from the start I had to cast Jon, and I really do think he’s a great actor. I’ve watched him grow up, go through Steppenwolf’s training center, do Sam Shepard plays. I’ve seen him do so much, and now he’s out in Los Angeles and doing his role on Superstore, which is so funny, but I personally knew he had the chops aside from that to do this. I probably could have cast lots of actors for this role, but there was only one who I whipped in the head with a bag of change in 1989, and then lied about giving him a bloody nose. Lots of good history to give us a foundation for these roles. I know how to push his buttons, he knows how to push mine, so when it came time for us to make each other angry, that was so natural. There’s no one who you’ll defend more passionately or get more fed up with than your sibling. It was funny, though — when my mom saw it, she told me, “I know there were some scenes where you were really being mean to Jonathan.” I said, “Yeah, but this time I’m paying him.”