“The Oath”


            We all know how divided we are politically in this country.  Public discourse is more and more vitriolic.  And families are not immune, because there may well be polar opposites sitting at the Thanksgiving table.  Which is exactly what happens here.

            Chris (writer and director Ike Barinholtz) is a forty-ish man with a loving wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish) and a sweet daughter, Hardy (Priah Ferguson).  They live in a nice suburban house with bay windows overlooking the front yard, maybe slightly dated but solidly middle class.  Chris obviously has strong (leftist) political opinions, which he shares frequently and vociferously.  Kai is most empathetic, but she's more worried about practical family things, like her daughter's education.  Oh, and keeping the peace when Chris' whole family comes over for Thanksgiving.

            Let's see, there's the hovering Mom, Eleanor (Nora Dunn), the silent Dad, Hank (Chris Ellis), the conservative little brother, Pat (John Barinholtz, Ike's “real” brother) and his equally conservative girlfriend, Abby (Meredith Hagner).  Chris' sister, Alice (Carrie Brownstein) also comes, with her husband, Avery (Brian Guest), who arrives sick with the flu and retires to the upstairs bedroom, which exempts him from the constant bickering downstairs.

            It seems that the government has decreed that everyone must take a “Loyalty Oath,” to the country and the President, by the day after Thanksgiving, or face potential (unspecified) consequences.  There's a special branch of Homeland Security designated to monitor the populace and encourage those who haven't signed up to do so.  Chris thinks this is absolutely ridiculous.  He feels that he has the right as an American to not subscribe to the loyalty oath, as a matter of the First Amendment.  (This is reminiscent of controversies regarding the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and the national anthem before sports events.)  Gradually, the rest of the adults around Chris' Thanksgiving table all admit that they signed The Oath, even his wife, Kai, which really floors him.  He's so disgusted with everybody that he takes his turkey plate and goes out to the driveway to eat by himself inside his car.  And spend the night in there, as well.

            The next morning, Kai comes out and chastises him for leaving his whole family at the table, and reminds him that he just has one more day with them before they all have to leave.  He reluctantly comes back in the house, only to find...two agents of that special branch of Homeland Security, wanting to ask him some questions.  It seems that somebody reported that he had not signed.  And they have come to pay him a visit and ask him why.  One of the agents, Peter (John Cho), speaks in a quiet, reasonable tone, but his partner, Mason (Billy Magnussen) is throwing his authority around, which only further infuriates Chris.

            Then things start really going downhill.  It's a frantic, expletive-laden, shouting match that manages to involve everyone in the family, and we're uncomfortable watching all the conflict, but after a while we're curious to see where this is going.

            Yes, there is a point where political opinions take a back seat to family considerations.  But where, exactly, is that point?  And what do you do when facing the consequences of something you wish you hadn't done?

            It's so confined it could be a play (or even an R-rated sitcom, except the humor would be very dark).  It's not exactly fun to watch, but it definitely maintains enough tension to make it interesting.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association