A fear-mongering, power-hungry president has decided to asked his fellow Americans to sign a loyalty oath to prove their patriotism. There are incentives to signing – tax breaks, of course – but signing will be totally optional. Americans have nearly a year – until Black Friday – to opt in or out. No pressure. But during that year, things are not as easy-peasy as first promised. ‘Patriots’ turn vitriolic. Hate crimes increase. Protests often get violent. Protestors start to mysteriously disappear. ‘Concerned’ citizens start turning each other in.
Sound disturbingly plausible?
But of course holidays must still be observed, so we join Chris and Kai as they host is family for Thanksgiving.
Chris (Ike Barinholtz) is staunchly against signing the oath; he and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) agree on that. But while Kai just wants to survive the family and survive her in-laws, Chris is glued to the television and obsessed with minute-to-minute reports from across the country. It’s hard to blame him: these are indeed crazy times.
Chris’s mother (Nora Dunn) insists on “no politics” at the table, but Chris can’t help but clash with his right-wing, oath-signing brother Pat and Pat’s alt-right, fake news spouting girlfriend. Even Chris’s “more reasonable” sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) can’t get a word in. The first half of the movie plays out exactly like many of our own family gatherings would under similar circumstances. Ike Barinholtz, who also writes and directs, gets right to the heart of things, satirizing and underlining America’s troubling and polarizing partisanship. He keeps things interesting by casting Chris as equally culpable. He’s on the opposite side of the spectrum, but he’s every bit the blowhard, intolerant of every opinion but his own.
And then John Cho shows up. He and Billy Magnussen play CPU agents – that’s Citizens Protection Unit to you. It seems someone has reported Chris for his unAmerican activities. Cho plays a relatively reasonable guy, but Magnussen plays exactly the kind of guy who would be attracted to the position. Never mind that this oath was supposedly voluntary, he believes Chris is the worst kind of traitor, and he’ll stop at nothing (and I do mean nothing) to serve his country in the manner he’s deemed necessary. Shit goes south FAST. The film takes a detour toward the increasingly absurd, and yet Barinholtz never loses us because it never quite feels unrealistic. And maybe that’s the scariest part.
What I’ve failed to mention is that although this is technically a political comedy, it’s also a horror movie. It’s not gory or graphic or particularly scary to watch, but it is deeply frightening to feel how close we are to this very situation.
I may have enjoyed the concept more than I enjoyed the execution of this film, but damn if it didn’t keep me 100% mentally engaged and 110% emotionally enraged.
Every single character is acting out of love of family and love of country – every single one. But they’re coming at it from such different directions it feels impossible that they should all want the same thing. This is exactly American’s biggest problem right now, and the gap between the sides widens every day. No matter which side of the problem you think you’d come down on yourself, you must admit that in 2019, the most revolutionary act we can commit is one of compassion.
The Oath is a smart, thoughtful movie that I wanted to end only because I couldn’t wait to start talking about it.