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Review: The Oath

October 19, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

“I pledge my loyalty to my President and my country and vow to defend them from enemies, both foreign and domestic.”

This is the Patriot’s Oath at the centre of The Oath, an uneven but still topical and often entertaining political satire that marks the directorial debut of comedic actor Ike Barinholtz, who also wrote the script and stars in the film.

The film takes place in an alternate version of America, and begins with the government putting forth a declaration that citizens are expected to sign pledging their allegiance to the president. Signing the Oath is not mandatory, but there are tax benefits for doing so, and repercussions for those who protest too loudly.

The film unfolds over the week of Thanksgiving, showing the effects that the Oath has on a politically divided family. At the centre of it all is Chris (Barinholtz), the sort of white, upper middle class progressive who makes a point of virtue signalling about his “resistance” to the government and especially the Oath, making no secret of his indignation towards anyone who has made the choice to sign it.

Chris and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are hosting Thanksgiving at their place, and it just so happens that the Oath comes into effect on Black Friday. This automatically puts a cloud over their celebrations, especially since his conservative family is visiting, including his parents Hank (Chris Ellis) and Eleanor (Nora Dunn), as well as his brother Pat (Ike’s real life brother, Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), a pair of young patriots who make no secret of their support for the president.

While Kai advises him to not bring up politics, Chris finds himself unable to resist his urge to discuss the Oath, and eventually he snaps and starts lashing out at those who signed it. While Chris prides himself on being tolerant, he is actually the most intolerant member of his family when it comes to accepting different viewpoints, awarding himself the moral high ground – sometimes justifiably so – but often acting like a humongous jerk to those around him. It’s in these moments when the film is at its most interesting, playing up the heated political arguments that have become all too common nowadays.

At a time when families have actually been broken apart along political divides, this is fertile ground for both comedy and drama, and the early scenes mirror a heightened version of what has surely happened around many dinner tables over the past few years. Then the film takes a turn about halfway through and becomes something much darker in its second half, when a pair of government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show up at the door to question Chris about his opposition to the Oath.

From here, The Oath starts to resemble more of a darkly comic riff on The Purge then it does the family dramedy that it starts out as in the earlier scenes. Both halves of the film are often entertaining in their own ways, but the more sitcomish quality of the first half doesn’t quite match the violent and more intense second half, and vice versa, which gives a somewhat uneven feel to the film as a whole.

The film also has a tendency to play things a little too broad when a more dialled back approach likely would have allowed for a more nuanced look at a family unravelling due to political differences, and the actual Oath itself functions as more of a plot device rather than a fully developed concept. While there was potential here for something more, The Oath is still fine for what it is, offering a fairly entertaining and at times uncomfortable look at a nation divided.

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