Ike Barinholtz Talks 'The Oath' and the Inarguable Likability of John Cho

The debut writer-director also pointed to 'Manchester By the Sea' as one of his favorite examples of abrupt and hilarious tonal shifts.

Ike Barinholtz

Whatever your politics, whatever your beliefs, there’s something universal about sitting down with family and choosing only to discuss topics that have been pre-determined to cause as little damage as possible. But what would happen if everyone were pushed to speak their mind? That’s the premise of The Oath, the pitch-black comedy from comedian and screenwriter Ike Barinholtz. Barinholtz takes the current states of politics and, using the premise of The Oath — a dystopian display of patriotism that divides the country — pushes one prototypical American family into surprising acts of violence. We recently sat down to talk to Barinholtz about his debut feature and his hope that The Oath will spark its own heated conversations this holiday season.

If you’re looking for easy laughs, you may not find them here. The Oath is more nimble than that, focusing on the self-sustained paranoia of its main character to both develop — and relieve — moments of tension. “I love it when movies are able to give you two emotions very quickly,” Barinholtz explains. One unexpected example that comes to mind for the filmmaker is Manchester By the Sea. In that film, which Barinholtz openly describes as “one of the saddest movies ever,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan isn’t afraid to undercut tragedy with humor. “After the saddest scene, after the fire, there’s this moment where the paramedics can’t open the door to the ambulance,” he recalls. “I’m laughing with tears down my face, and I love that feeling.”

It certainly helps that The Oath does not feel overly improvised. Despite the number of talented comedians in the cast, there’s none sign of the looseness in The Oath that sometimes plagues contemporary comedies; each character is pushed forward by circumstance, leaving little room for meandering bits of observational comedy. “To me, the best way it works is if you have a script that you know works on the page and you have a cast that knows it works on the page,” Barinholtz offers. While his own background may lean heavily towards improvisation, as a writer and director, he recognizes the importance in creating things that work within the context of the script. This means he needed actors he could trust, actors who could “improvise in the context of the scene and progress the scene as opposed to just saying funny things.”

As a filmmaker, Barinholtz also has a knack for using what we know about a performer — or what we think we know — against us in a dramatic setting. Take Tiffany Haddish, for example. Despite being the funniest part of her movies, here the actress has been cast as the straight character, acting as the voice of reason in an otherwise chaotic situation. This was something Barinholtz always had in mind. “I knew since I saw Keanu, I wanted her to be my wife,” he admits. “I knew that the character I was playing was the perfect foil to this tough, smart, strong woman.”

Barinholtz also asked Haddish to help shape the reaction her character has to the political dystopia her family inhabits. One of the threads in The Oath is the frustration Haddish’s character exhibits in the face of endless political outrage; this runs the risk of feeling like something of a mixed note in the film, especially given how frequently women of color have stood — and stood exposed — against would-be autocrats. For Barinholtz, this was an act of survival. “When [Haddish] says in the movie, ‘I don’t care about signing some stupid government shit,’ she kind of told me, ‘It’s survival. We’re used to being marginalized for doing what it takes to survive,’” he explains. “And that really, really made me feel like, okay, this is gonna work.”

Similarly, Barinholtz cast John Cho because he knew the actor could generate a tremendous amount of empathy in a short period of time. Once things turn bloody with the government agents, The Oath reveals itself as an exercise in trust. From there, the film is careful not to withhold information from its characters — not to artificially delay tough conversations between factions — or remove a nonviolent resolution from the table altogether. The latter is almost entirely due to the presence of Cho; as long as his character is awake and open to negotiations, the actor’s natural charm and likability makes a happy ending for The Oath seem like a plausible outcome. “I knew I wanted John because I knew I wanted this character Peter to be someone the audience really loves and sympathizes with, and no one is more likable than John Cho,” Barinholtz says simply. “Scientists have shown, have proven, he’s the most likable guy.”

There is one bit of actual family tension present in The Oath, however. To play the role of his ultra-conservative brother, Barinholtz cast his brother Jon, perhaps best known for his recurring stockroom character on the television workplace comedy Superstore. When it comes to family tensions, nothing beats the real thing. “In real life we’re best friends, but there were many moments throughout the 35 years we’ve known each other that we were not best friends, and I wanted to kill him, and vice versa.” Casting his younger brother allowed Barinholtz to dig into some of their personal history, to use emotional muscle memory — the countless instincts and triggers developed over three decades of growing up together — to sell some the toxic relationship between the two character. “I knew that if I cast an actor, even if I cast a great actor, even if cast Jake Johnson, all right, there is just so much real shit between me and my brother, that is unresolved, and just sitting under the surface.”

And if the film serves as its own self-fulfilling prophecy? If families gather at Thanksgiving and argue violently about the negative portrayal of liberal and conservative politics in The Oath? Well, that would suit Barinholtz just fine. “There is a catharsis there where you’re just like, ‘I’m not alone,’” he says when asked if he’s ready for people to spend the holidays fighting about his movie. “I sit at Thanksgiving and I wanna scream, and regardless of your affiliation, I think if you go and see this, you can laugh at it. And I think it will actually make your Thanksgiving better, because you’ll be a little more aware of what not to do.”

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.