The Oath is like a George A. Romero film without the zombies — at least not the literal zombies. Put another way, it’s 1984 for 2018, a cautionary tale for a totalitarian future that casts a penetrating gaze at our proto-fascist present.
Whatever your literary-cinematic reference point, comedian Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut is easily the most confrontational, nerve-rattling missive to come out of Hollywood in the Trump era, without ever mentioning the man’s name. It’s so provocative, in fact, that it’s a miracle it was even greenlit.
It opens on a March day; it could be next year, or the year after. Chris and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are sitting on their bed, watching a news conference with expressions that alternate between puzzlement and concern. The White House press secretary, who isn’t Sarah Sanders but could be Sarah Sanders, has unveiled the fictional administration’s latest attempt to keep the nation’s restive population in line: a loyalty pledge to the Dear Leader. An oath, if you will.
Signing such a document is not mandatory — why, that would be antithetical to America’s values as a nation founded on dissent — but those who do sign it will receive government perks, such as tax incentives. The deadline to sign is, ominously, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, 10 short months away. Chris and Kai, proud members of the Resistance with an impressionable daughter to inspire, swear they’ll never sign.
The rest of this exceedingly uncomfortable nightmare takes place Thanksgiving week, where the nation’s temperature, like that frog in the famous analogy, is reaching a rapid boil. Progressive figureheads are being disappeared; civil rights leaders in Congress are being hauled away in cuffs; protesters are being sprayed with bullets. These actions are being carried out by the Citizens Protection Unit (C.P.U.), an ingeniously Orwellian subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security.
It’s in this incendiary environment that Chris and Kai try to host a Thanksgiving meal, complete with guests who wouldn’t get along under normal circumstances, among them Chris’ preppy conservative brother, Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and Pat’s alt-right girlfriend, Abbie (Meredith Hagner); and his parents, Eleanor and Hank (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis), family-values traditionalists who would prefer to avoid talk of “politics” at the dinner table.
Inevitably, opinions are divulged, invectives hurled, regrettable sentiments not-quite taken back. But it’s not until two mirthless agents from the C.P.U. (Billy Magnussen and John Cho) visit Chris and Kai’s home, on an anonymous tip, that the true horror ensues — and it doesn’t let up until the denouement.
The Oath raises so many issues relevant to the zeitgeist: The unhealthiness of feeding on a polarizing diet of cable news, talk radio and political podcasts, which Chris consumes like an addict. The complacency inherent in ignoring a nation’s urgent cataclysmic convulsions in favor of, for instance, Thanksgiving dinner, with its false illusions of normalcy.
But mostly, the film is a warning about what a police state might look like in Trump’s America, when everybody’s on edge, ideological divisions couldn’t be starker, and literally turning in one’s brother is an act of patriotism. Anyone who’s guilty of too much news consumption over the past two years can’t help but think of the dehumanizing raids of ICE, the protesters manhandled at Trump’s rallies, his adviser Stephen Miller’s dire directives to obey the president.
The Oath is frightening because although we’re not there yet, its actions are within the realm of possibility. The characters’ plights are discomfortingly plausible. Viewers will see themselves in this or that family member, all of whom exist in three dimensions and can never be reduced to mere mouthpieces for their viewpoints or demographics. And yet, while the movie seethes with the unnerving intensity of a home-invasion thriller, it never loses its sense of humor — a wit that is wry, sardonic and culturally savvy. (Take, for instance, Chris’ continued insistence on remaining politically correct about the government stooges’ nationalities, even when his life, and his loved ones’ lives, are in danger.)
In one important way, The Oath varies from its satirical roots in Romero-esque socio-political breakdown. In Night of the Living Dead, true evil lay not with the zombies but in the humans’ internecine conflicts, which failed to cede even when faced with an existential threat to their species. In The Oath, when pushed too far, the family sticks together. Differences dissolve in the face of a greater enemy. I’d like to think this blood-above-ideology practicality would still prevail. Would that we never have to find out.
THE OATH. Director: Ike Barinholtz; Cast: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, John Cho, Carrie Brownstein, Billy Magnussen, Meredith Hagner, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rating: R; Now playing at Cobb Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton.