Thanksgiving is a wonderful time. The beloved holiday brings loved ones together with joyous spirits and a comforting warmth that permeates the air. It’s the pinnacle of familial adoration and connection. While feasting on glorious food, catching up with estranged cousins, and explaining your major to your grandmother, many nights may eventually end in division as the inevitable political conversation comes up. While political talk should universally be banned from the Thanksgiving dinner table, with today’s divisive climate, it’s hard not to get fired up about civil rights, policy changes, or staying true to traditional values. Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut, The Oath, deals with exactly this problem. How can you focus on loving your family when the world is seemingly descending into chaos?
In an alternative present, the American government has introduced the Patriot’s Oath, a declaration that asks its citizens to sign their allegiance to the country by Black Friday. There are no apparent repercussions for not signing, this Oath only gives the government a database of its most loyal citizens. As Thanksgiving approaches and the United States steadily devolves into tyranny, Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) ambitiously try to host a politics-free family gathering. Although tempers flare as Chris’ brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) bring their Trump-supporting ideas and personalities, most of the night is tempered by Chris’ reasonable sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) and loving parents Eleanor (Nora Dunn) and Hank (Chris Ellis). The night, however, takes a violent turn as government agents Peter (John Cho) and Mason (Billy Magnussen) unexpectedly show up to the house searching for Oath defectors.
In today’s social and political climate, The Oath acts as a cathartic release of myriad emotions against overwhelmingly frustrating ideologies, rhetoric, and people. Barinholtz hilariously satires those that are confrontationally ignorant or unknowingly intolerant, reminding us that it’s okay to laugh at this ultra-serious society. The mockery of different political extremes is as timely as it is hilarious, as Barinholtz and Haddish ground the film in their comedic genius and absurd hysteria. Haddish brings her usual unbridled vulgarity with insults and jokes that only she could deliver. While it would be easy to keep on talking about Haddish, the rest of the cast complement the comedy with their own versions of outlandish idiocy and clever comedic timing.
That’s where the film impresses, through balance. There’s balance in genre as it simultaneously plays like a comedy, political commentary, and an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then there’s balance in the comedy as Barinholtz presents humor that’s equally ridiculous as it is subtle, providing myriad ways to lose yourself in hysteria. Lastly, there’s balance in the political extremes. While Chris mostly spends his time disparaging his conservative brother and girlfriend, it’s clear that Chris himself can be foolishly indignant. This sense of balance is refreshing. While The Oath is highly politicized, few things feel overly heavy-handed, rather, the entire film feels harmonious through its political message.
This brings us to the political commentary. There are plenty of things to unpack, but firstly, it’s a tremendous reminder of the dangers that totalitarian government present. In America, freedom reigns above all, which means that the government shouldn’t interfere with freedom by harassing citizens that freely choose not to sign their loyalty to the government. Such actions strip democracy from the people, inching us closer to other deceitfully democratic nations. The Oath brilliantly demonstrates that power belongs to the people.
Secondly, The Oath reminds us that family and love should supersede above all. How often do we let politics divide us? It doesn’t always have to be politics. How often do we let our phones, the news, or social media command the dinner table? Life is about much more than our political affinities or breaking news updates. Life is about love and community, but too often we find it too difficult to end the political talk in favor of genuine conversation. The Oath reminds us that familial bonds last in this finite world, but it’s easy to forget that.
Barinholtz’s directorial debut is a hilariously chaotic look at the repercussions of politically charged Thanksgivings. While funny and entertaining, it simultaneously reminds us to maintain our personal freedom as we put our phones down and connect with our loved ones. As the 2018 midterms quickly approach, The Oath is as relevant as ever and will surely be a cathartic watch for years to come.