Ike Barinholtz's 'The Oath' Is A Hilarious Look At A Tumultuous, Politically-Charged Family Dinner [LAFF Review]

Thanksgiving is not just a time for friends and family to come together and enjoy a feast. No, it’s a confined space threatened by friendly facades, repressed disdain, and farcical attempts to remain civil at the dinner table. With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America two years ago, these tensions have yet to ease. In fact, his rise to power has stretched this general unease into unfathomed lengths, resulting in torn families, and thus, altering dinner tables across the country for good. Inspired from his own politically-fueled Thanksgiving quarrels following the 2016 election, Ike Barinholtz makes his directorial debut with “The Oath,” a project that takes on Trump-era politics head-on with an unadulterated sense of humor. It’s one of the first true laughs to be had within today’s current political disarray.

Barinholtz’s debut is urgent and dark as it is funny, striking the nail on the head of today’s America with a wallop as emphatic as “Get Out” or “BlacKkKlansman.” Inspired (or uninspired) by Trump’s National Loyalty Day (May 1st), Barinholtz’s film on one level, is a social critique regarding the dangers of extremism and mindless, misinformed devotion to patriotism. Nevertheless, the film begins with an explanation of the Loyalty Oath, a code of solidarity which, if signed, grants certain “perks,” including tax breaks. With the deadline to sign being Black Friday (aka the day after Thanksgiving), the film takes place over the course of five days.

Couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are strongly against the Oath but understands that most of Chris’ family, including his brother Pat, signed it. With Chris’ family visiting for Thanksgiving, Kai warns her easily peeved husband to not discuss the Oath and “to not get into any physical altercations.” Very quickly, Kai’s plea is disregarded as soon as Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and his new girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) arrive. Inevitably, Chris, Patrick, alongside Abbie, bicker over politics which leads to the increased animosity that boils over into Thanksgiving. Although Thanksgiving day is peaceful and orderly at first, the inevitable happens. Triggered by the news law enforcement had opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators protesting the Oath, Chris argues the necessity to mourn the news with Pat and Abbie among others. As the conservative couple refutes the validity of the news, Chris becomes increasingly heated and opens up an explosive can of worms.

Considering the events that follow, Barinholtz’s script really makes you wonder why it took so long to explore the family dynamic in this fashion, with this much relevancy, blatancy, and lunacy. With a calamitous energy and a plot that spirals out of control, the film’s atmosphere is distressed, compressed, and confined like a stage production or an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The snowballing turmoil depicted in the film is a perfect example of art imitating life. 

There is no doubting socio-political relevancy and immediacy as the driving force behind Barinholtz’s debut, but the amount of irony and genuinely funny dialogue featured lifts this film to greatness. Whether it is Abbie and Pat ignorantly denoting Chris Rock as “a racist,” Chris screaming “This isn’t political, but fuck you…This is America, so fuck you!” or Kai and Chris referring to Abbie as “a trash pussy,” Barinholtz navigates the caricatured vernacular between each side of the political spectrum with ease while showing incredible self-awareness.

Even more so than the dialogue, the faces and minds behind the name-calling and heated discussion are funny, familiar and incredibly provocative. The gasoline to the bigoted wildfire, Hagner is convincing in her role as Abbie, a character that eerily echoes the Tomi Lahren archetype. Equally repugnant is Billy Magnussen’s performance as Agent Mason. As is the case with every Magnussen role, he is delightfully douchey, hyper-masculine and easy to hate. Mason is an embodiment of everything to dislike about America, so it should be no surprise that each and every character, even Pat, transfers their frustrations and anger into him.

Then there is Carrie Brownstein’s Alice, Chris’ sister. Even though Alice embodies that one civil, bipartisan family member, Brownstein’s proven prowess and comedic subtleties allow for this character to stand out. While I could go on to mention how wonderful Haddish performed, as well as Barinholtz, the Hagner, Magnussen, and Brownstein, in particular, stole every scene they were in. Though it is easy to single out each portrayal, it is the genuine dynamic between the entire cast that lends to the film’s core—the importance of family in the face of disagreement and discord.  

Raw, improvised and indicative of Trump’s America, “The Oath” reminds viewers of the need for laughter despite the downtrodden insanity around us. Thankfully, Barinholtz resists the urge to lapse into cynicism, because at the end of the day people are more important than politics. [A-]