Review: The Oath Is an Ideological Brawl, Part Dark Comedy, Part Thriller

Movie poster courtesy Roadside Attractions.

I feel confident that when actor-turned-writer/director Ike Barinholtz began writing his directorial debut, The Oath, it felt like political satire wrapped in something like a science-fiction premise about a nation being torn apart over the issue of a loyalty oath. The signing of said oath isn’t a requirement of its citizens, but those who refuse to swear their allegiance to their country in writing begin to get harassed and treated like traitors or enemies of the state. Adding to the pressure that the oath causes the nation, the deadline to sign is Thanksgiving weekend (Black Friday, if I’m not mistaken), undoubtedly leading to some tense situations around holiday dinner tables across the country.

Barinholtz’s Chris and his wife Kai (a nice, dialed-back performance from Tiffany Haddish) are about as liberal as they come, and both refuse to sign, even through in the months leading up to the deadline many of their like-minded friends and co-workers (including Chris’s best friend, played by Max Greenfield) decide to just to do it to avoid trouble. It just so happens that Chris and Kai are hosting Thanksgiving dinner for his family, so the stage is set for an ideological brawl that is part dark comedy and, eventually, part thriller as outside forces begin to work their way into the story.

If I was going to fault the film for anything, it’s that it’s set in a fictional version of the United States. The president calling for this oath isn’t our current one, who actually forced certain cabinet members to swear an oath to him in front of cameras early in his presidency. Aside from that, the film is remarkably well conceived and written as a piece of alternative fiction. Glimpses of the news (which Chris watches obsessively) give us a sense that this oath is tearing the country apart, and it’s certainly making Chris more paranoid to the point of being quite annoying. Barinholtz could have easily made The Oath a story about attacking conservatives’ more fascist tendencies. Instead it’s a remarkably balanced take on this material, with his character refusing to let things go and looking for a fight at every turn; these become ugly and unlikable behaviors. Kai is more about keeping the peace, but even she has trouble keeping Chris at bay during Thanksgiving dinner.

Jon Barinholtz (Ike’s real-life brother) plays Chris’s brother Pat, who brings with him his latest girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), who loves to kill time by trolling liberals on social media and visiting conservative-leaning conspiracy theory sites and treating them as factual. Hagner is note perfect as the annoying provocateur, who says just enough to let you know she’s a terrible human being but not quite enough for you to label her a racist or fascist. She and Chris have a discussion about whether Chris Rock is a racist that feels so ripped from an actual conversation that you might forget to breathe from either laughing so hard or just being in total shock at the pinpoint accuracy of the dialogue. Nora Dunn is also on hand as the brothers’ mom, who just wants her family to have a peaceful meal and not fight, frustrating both sides of any debate by refusing to pick a side.

Carrie Brownstein arrives as sister Alice, with her sickly husband (Jay Duplass), who hilariously retreats to a bedroom for most of the film, only to reappear at a critical point in the drama to maximum comedic effect. Things take a scarier turn when two federal agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) arrive at the door to check on the status of oath signing by all members of the household, and things quickly escalate, turning this discussion-heavy film into a kidnapping drama that plays out in cleverly unexpected ways. But rather than this shifting tone being a detriment to the storytelling, it actually enhances and makes crystal clear what the stakes are in this movie.

As much as The Oath focuses on the family dynamic, the real issue at hand is how far the government or militia groups are willing to extend their reach in a moment when citizens are so at odds with each other. When the film goes for broader humor, it’s not as effective, but Barinholtz and Haddish keep that to a minimum, instead focusing on laser-guided commentary on family, politics and mob rule on a scale the country has never seen. It’s a surprisingly impactful and thought-provoking work that manages to make us laugh and think in equal measure.

The film opens today at the ShowPlace ICON at Roosevelt Collection theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.