The Thanksgiving dinner table has become a figurative and literal battleground in our current political landscape; perhaps it was only a matter of time until someone made a movie about it. That someone turned out to be Ike Barinholtz, first-time feature director and most recently star of Blockers, whose take on the scene would appear to be in the straightforward, R-rated comedy lane. Maybe in another world, maybe even two years ago, The Oath could be considered a comedy. But, perhaps until the patriot police show up on the doorstep of our protagonists’ house, none of it is outlandish enough to be considered a genuine comedic heightening. It’s not brash enough to measure up to the very-near-future dystopia of The Purge franchise; it’s also not studied enough as a character ensemble to work as a dialogue-driven bottle movie. The Oath lands in an unpleasant middle ground that is too close to reality to feel like escapism, and too antic to feel equipped at anything like incisiveness.
Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish play Chris and Kai, a married couple who, in the film’s prologue, watch their TV in horror as the government announces the titular Oath, a supposedly nonmandatory vow of faithfulness to the president of the United States of America. Chris gets incensed, Kai gets turned on by how incensed he is, they make love to the soothing tones of cable news. Fast forward one year: All that sexy political anger has curdled into hunched dread as the deadline to sign looms, inconveniently on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Cable news and radio punditry have become a near-crippling addiction for Chris, but he’s still angry, even as one friend after another admits they’ve taken the oath.
The Oath seems like it’s teeing up for a kind of Body Snatchers–esque thriller, in which all the people Chris thought were like-minded allies slowly reveal themselves to be tools of the state. There could be a lot of dark humor to be mined from that, but instead the film turns its attention to Chris’s moderate-to-right-leaning family, who have descended on Chris and Kai’s house for the holiday. The family butts heads almost instantly, largely fueled by Chris’s brother (Barinholtz’s real-life brother Jon) and his new pearl-and-twinset-wearing girlfriend Abby (a hilariously repugnant Meredith Hagner). Even Chris’s sane-seeming sister (Carrie Brownstein) doesn’t have his back in his political views, leaving him and Kai more or less isolated when Friday rolls around and the cops come a-knockin’ with a friendly reminder that he hasn’t made his blood oath to POTUS yet. (No, not that POTUS — The Oath takes place in a different dystopia.)
The cops are played by John Cho and Billy Magnussen (good cop and bad cop, respectively,) and Chris’s resistance to them sets off a chaotic and violent second half of the movie, which is mostly just a series of cause-and-effect blunt traumas that feels like it’s going nowhere — we’re told that elsewhere in the country protesters are being gunned down and innocent people are being arrested, and our main characters’ home has been invaded, and the joke is …? Magnussen’s character is a malevolent, violent time bomb in the house — and a counterpoint to Cho’s intermittently conscious one — but it’s hard to say what they represent beyond their immediate bodily threat to our characters, and how their presence changes not only Chris and Kai, but their less-progressive dinner guests.
As an audacious dark-comedy premise, The Oath is a decent start. But Barinholtz’s follow-through is weak, and despite its black-and-white political premise the takeaway is frustratingly gray. The film as is addled as Barinholtz’s punditry-addicted protagonist — mad as hell, and with zero idea how to channel that anger. As some of us know from experience, that can get exhausting fast.