When dissension needs to be heard, is it still better to speak with nothing to say than to not speak at all? As Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut The Oath shows, it may be better leaving the outcry to voices that can convince rather than be simply loud. The film feels spiritually adjacent to the quasi-science fiction of The Purge franchise, portraying a future where the American government institutes a signed oath to the administration, enforced by both shadowy agencies and the social demands of those around us. The potential consequences of opposition are as scary as the futility of dealing with the devoted. But Barinholtz can’t move deeper than the lowest common denominator of his themes.
Bariholtz also stars as Chris, a news junkie hanging on every developing evil of the overstepping, extreme right government. Meanwhile he and his wife Kai, played by Tiffany Haddish, prepare to invite his conservative and allegiant family over for the Thanksgiving holiday. The titular oath looms large, with the Black Friday deadline approaching and Chris’ steadfast certainty to not sign it. What follows is an uneven thriller with a few comedic respites, both intimately contained and unambitiously stylized.
Despite all of its polemic grabs at satirical commentary, the sharpest lesson gleaned from The Oath is that you sideline Tiffany Haddish at your peril. Hers is the perspective the narrative desperately needs, and she shatters the film’s myopias when finally given the opportunity.
Quite simply, the actress is the brightest spot among the film’s dull and obvious rhetoric, providing a grounded reality to the monotone rantings of Barinholtz’s script. Here she gets to showcase her dramatic muscle along with the comedic gifts that have made us fall in love with her, as Kai emotionally caves with the burden of playing peacemaker to Chris’s anger. Haddish makes Kai more strategic than passive, though we never quite understand what she sees in this manboy.
But even as she crafts the film’s most layered performance, not even her humanity can transcend that fact that the film turns her presence as a black woman into plot tactic, removing much of her voice and agency as Chris bulldozes. Much of the film’s problems lie in how it misses the mark of thematic self-awareness, how it embodies rather than critiques progressives that angrily spin their tires instead of solve problems. Or challenge their own privilege or ineffectiveness. Perhaps this is partly the intention, but The Oath lacks the grace to make this meaningful. In turn, the extreme right wing characters are thinly drawn as well, seldom funny or threatening enough to
While there is something honest about the blind rage of the film’s rendering, the feverish ranting reflected to the core of its structure and dialogue, Barinholtz thus far lacks the directorial maneuverability to turn it into something productive or artful. There’s a steady miscalibration to both its laughs and tension, the rhythms of the film seldom clicking into place just like its ideas.
As effective as an all-caps tweetstorm, the film is a scream into the void without any insight into what it’s screaming about, what it wants to shake us into awareness of. Ultimately, the film just says what we already know and to little end. What is this meant to soothe, speak to power, or provide catharsis to? The result just feels gross and cynical, unrevealing in its simplistic outlook.