Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Oath

               Oh Beautiful for Specious Skies, 
               For Amber Distilled Grain

                              Review by Ken Burke

                                     The Oath (Ike Barinholtz)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): (This has been one of those weeks I forecast a couple of postings ago where I only had time to get to 1 new theatrical release [although around various other activities, including watching some importantto mebaseball and basketball games, with some outcomes I actually liked, I was able to view one worthwhile new TV movie—My Dinner with Hervé {Sasha Gervasi, HBO}, featuring an excellent performance by Peter Dinklage—and re-view a no-contest-5-star-classic, Cries and Whispers {Ingmar Bergman, 1972}, the rare foreign-language-film nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture {beaten—no surprise, as these 2 epitomize artistic film vs. entertainment movies, even when the latter deserves praise for its own accomplishments—by Hollywood-favorite The Sting, helmed by George Roy Hill, who also topped Bergman for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay}, winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar for Sven Nykvist].  What I’m reviewing here doesn’t begin to compare to Cries …, but while the latter is timeless in its tragic passion The Oath is extremely timely in its assault [in more ways than one, although infused with a lot of humor as well] on the contemporary U.S. sociopolitical scene, taking place in what seems to be a slightly-alternative-universe [we hope]).  Chris is a strident left-winger trying to keep his cool (not easy; he’s hot-tempered) as Thanksgiving dinner with conservative family members approaches, although his biggest concern is a nationwide Loyalty Oath which has a signing deadline of Black Friday.  What you’d expect at the dinner confrontation quickly occurs (largely because Chris can’t keep his mouth shut except when chewing his food), but the real drama (a deadly switch in tone from comic aspects up to this point) comes on Friday when a couple of enforcer-volunteers from the Citizens Protection Unit question Chris, leading to scenes of tension, fear, some blood, plus more of the blatant obscenities we’ve been peppered with already.  Obviously, this film isn’t for everyone—it’s not even playing in many theaters yet—but if you give it a chance (now or likely soon on video) you’ll get a good dose of how our current sociocultural divides could take even worse directions, giving us all good reason to prevent that by working civilly with each other rather than always easily assuming the worst motivations about those we disagree with.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

(Although, be warned, this is a Red Band trailer with lots of the film’s R-rated language; if you’d like to watch one a bit more sanitized try this [but keep reality in mind if you choose to pay for this film]:)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Chris Powell (Ike Barinholtz), an ultra-left-winger (obnoxious about it too, easily angered, ready to launch into tirades about anything or anyone not meeting his definition of propriety) White guy married to Kai (Tiffany Haddish, with a more serious role here than usual for her, although she gets some laughs in an early scene when she manages to turn Chris’ most-recent-fuming into foreplay after she tells him to take off his shirt)—a Black woman whose values are as liberal as his but who usually offers more measured reactions than he does—parent of a couple of young mixed-race-kids, is nervously preparing for Thanksgiving dinner with his family which he anticipates to be another disaster because of previous clashes with his generally-moderate parents, Eleanor (Nora Dunn) and Hank (Chris Ellis), considerably-more-conservative-brother, Pat (Jon Barinholtz [Ike’s actual sibling]), although his sister, Alice (Barrie Brownstein), agrees with Chris’ politics, she just doesn’t want to join him in battling Pat (we might assume her husband, Clark [Jay Duplass], would also support Chris but he’s out of action, sick with the flu for most of this story until he makes an important appearance at the end).  Chris doesn’t do himself any favors with Pat’s girlfriend, Abbie (Meredith Hagner), either, at first mistakenly calling her “Katie”—Pat’s previous love—which she takes offense at until Chris is so angry at her and Pat he doesn’t care what name he uses as long as it’s mixed with obscenities (this is an obviously-R-rated trip through family trauma, mostly because of aggressive-language-insults, although some physical violence later on results in scenes of minor bloodshed not pleasant to watch, even within the context of a political satire).  While these left vs. right-arguments could happen without much encouragement (obviously they have before), there’s a much-more-pressing-situation during this Thanksgiving (where each day of the developing week is announced with huge graphics, loudly-ominous music) because the President is “requesting” all Americans to sign a loyalty oath to him and the country by no later than Black Friday, something Chris vehemently opposes even as he (correctly) assumes several family members have readily done so (even his likeminded close friend at work signed because of negative pressure personally and professionally against those whose refusal is seen as unpatriotic—Chris finds the whole concept a bold movement toward U.S. fascism; while we never see the President and his spokeswoman on newscasts looks nothing like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Trump-implications couldn’t be more obvious, which would surely be a selling or repelling point for this film, even as all in this family struggle display unsavory attitudes).

 Because Chris is a news junkie (Kai makes him promise he won’t break away from the Thanksgiving meal for updates) from left-leaning-MSNBC-type-reportage while Pat and Abbie get their info from Fox-ish sources, we can’t be sure what’s really happening nationwide during this extended holiday weekend (possibly 74% of the country’s signed the Loyalty Oath or maybe that’s exaggerated propaganda), but what’s clearly real is there are protests against the Oath in major cities where a Black Congressman’s been arrested for burning a copy of this divisive document (Chris is also on fire about this, citing the man’s First Amendment rights), possibly some protesters have been killed by members of the Citizens Protection Unit (a volunteer branch of Homeland Security) which Chris says is essentially a latter-day-Gestapo while Pat and Abbie say any dead protesters deserved to die (obviously, no political position in this [hopefully] alternative universe is immune from extreme depiction so as to allow the tensions to break in a furious manner as we finally reach that fateful Friday).  Chris even gets into hassles with Dad over how to use the TV remote in an attempt to turn off the escalating clashes on-air, with the device too complicated for the old man to easily figure out, his impatient son trying to wrestle it away from normally-quiet-but-increasingly-frustrated Hank (reminding me of unspoken friction with my own father when I’d go back to Texas to visit, him reminding me where every light switch was in every room, although except for some outbursts from him about the Vietnam War or protesters at political conventions [“Why aren’t they at work?”] in 1968, 1972 we never argued politics—largely because I didn’t want to get into conflicts like what we have in The Oath, especially when my mother was constantly expressing her opinions about everything [many of which I didn’t agree with] so I could see arguments from their only child weren’t going to result in anything much better than what happens in the Powell household).  Their problems all come to a head at the long-dreaded-dinner, with the ultimate explosion resulting from Chris learning both Kai and Alice have signed the Oath, not because they agree with it but to protect their children from ostracization, or worse from the CPU, although that’s no excuse for Chris who takes his meal to the car, then falls asleep there overnight.

 ⇒Next day, just when you’d think things couldn’t get worse after all the obscene insults hurled back and forth on Thanksgiving, a true nightmare arrives in the form of 2 CPU guys coming to the house (without a warrant, Chris declares, although I’m not sure they operate with warrants anyway)—calm squad leader Peter (John Cho), hot-headed-partner Mason (Billy Magnussen)—to question Chris about a charge he’s interfered with someone wanting to sign the Oath, which he denies but quickly assumes Pat and/or Abbie made the accusation (they angrily deny it, especially her; one of my viewing companions thinks it was the friend from Chris’ office, as reasonable a speculation as any).  Given Mason’s belligerence (easily matching Chris), along with his statements about how it takes bold guys like him to protect this country when all-talk, no-action guys like Chris are what’s bringing us down (echoing an angry old man berating immigrants in a restaurant where the Powell family was eating on Wednesday night), it’s no surprise (although very troubling, if these CPU men are acting as government agents) Mason gets physically-confrontational with both Chris and Kai, leading Hank to grab the fireplace shovel, clobbering Peter with it (yet, he’s not clear why he didn’t hit Mason), leading to Chris then using this tool on Mason too, knocking him unconscious as well, so Pat (now more supportive of his brother) ties Mason’s hands behind him, Chris takes his gun.⇐

 ⇒The family’s now united in a quandary over what to do next (at least the kids haven’t witnessed any of this as Chris had Eleanor take them to a nearby-neighbor’s-home), but they get no help from Chris and Kai’s lawyer (overseas, bad phone connection, about to climb a mountain) nor any sustained action from Peter who wants to be reasonable but keeps passing out from his concussion.  Mason comes to, is more insulting than ever, secretly frees himself with a pocket knife, almost fatally plunges it into Chris’ chest only to be saved when Pat Tases him (after accidently zapping Kai first, which turns her disposition to fury when she recovers).  Anger and panic are flowing all around now as Chris talks privately with Kai and Alice about killing both Mason and Peter, then dumping their bodies in the woods, but the women convince him to work with Peter who says they must release Mason; they do, he grabs the gun but is subdued again, then tied up more thoroughly while still spewing verbal bile, threating to take action against Chris’ kids when he’s free.  In response, everyone but Peter encourages Chris to shoot Mason, which he’s ready to do when Clark rushes in, says "Turn on the TV” (just like how my parents called me to do the same with no further explanation when the 9/11 attacks happened in Manhattan).  When they do they find the President has resigned (no reason given yet) followed by the VP/now-Prez halting the Oath program, including any actions being taken against those who haven’t signed.  As this all wraps up, Chris and Pat drive Peter and Mason to a hospital that night, Peter reveals Mason has anger-management issues that got him fired from previous jobs, Chris declines to learn who filed the complaint against him, Mason quietly accepts his returned gun (my friend also said the bullets should have been given to Peter, but I guess Mason’s subdued response implies he’s standing down from his earlier hostility level).  Finally, Chris returns home to enjoy a piece of pie with Kai.⇐

So What? On a weekend (and following days) where I had time to see just one film I took the advice of my local critic-guru, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle (which sometimes pays off, sometimes doesn’t, especially in circumstances where I’ve ignored his dismissals to find myself thoroughly satisfied with something on-screen he found no value in), to choose—from among a few other possibilities, any of which might have been worthwhile—The Oath because of his claims "It's one of the best movies of the year" […] ‘The Oath’ is very much this year’s ‘Get Out’ equivalent […] If anything, the new movie is more pointed and incisive.”  While I can’t fully agree with the last part of that evaluation (I wouldn’t say The Oath is more impactful than Get Out [Jordan Peele, 2017; review in our May 11, 2017 posting]; for me, they each have specific strengths, although I find the latter—in being even more outrageous than The Oath—to be a slightly better cinematic experience overall), I’m glad I settled on this one (as did my regular viewing companions who, admittedly, haven’t all always been fully overjoyed with my picks; this time they found our weekly cinematic exploration to be at the very least a fascinating, if blundering-about at times, commentary on what we’re living through as another crucial election day approaches) because its exaggerations of our current sociopolitical situation aren’t all that extreme (possibly serving as a warning as to the sort of future this nation—and others who are following our lead [Or are we following theirs?  The various dictators President Trump seems to admire, believe, kowtow to were all in power before he was elected, although certain Eastern European ones seem to have gotten bolder in their rabid nationalism since he’s taken office]—could descend into if we don’t do more to keep this current imperial Presidency better under control); its violence is shocking (including, literally, with the Taser) but easily believable within the context of widening divides all through our society as civility erodes when oppositional forces clash (I’m not just talking about the knee-jerk-chants at Trump rallies either; lots of violence has also come from the masked antifa movement, degrading resistance into anarchy at times); its resolution is the stuff of political fantasy in the immediate, unexplained action of this fictional President but, again, not all that removed from reality if governmental-control shifts at least partially back to the Democrats after this November—along with whatever emerges from the Robert Mueller investigations—with newfound-pressure on Trump to provide Congress with currently-restricted-documents and halt his agenda of socially/environmentally-destructive policies.

(Just in case you think Kai doesn't know proper "bird" calls, all she's doing here is showing
the obnoxious CPU guys that she's married to Chris as they begin their interrogation.)
 The Oath is obviously not something that’s going to alter a lot of predetermined minds (including my own)—on both sides of our political spectrum, because our main lefty, Chris, while proven correct in his concerns about the fascist potential of the CPU also exemplifies liberal-knee-jerkiness (a malady I try to repress in myself, although not always successfully as you can probably tell by some of my comments in this and other reviews of mine) in his quick assumptions about his family’s motivations, becoming just as rigid in his own ideas and responses as he accuses his less-progressive-relatives of being in following their own beliefsbut if it can serve as a slowly (not too slow, hopefully, though not helped with its current marginal levels of critical support, theatrical availability; more on that just below) discovered fan favorite it might at least ignite some awareness of how this current cultural animus* is leading our society (and any who do emulate where we currently seem to be headed, with hopes no one will be beheaded in the process) toward inevitable physical chaos to accompany the policy and attitudinal wars we’re already engaged in.  Even if potential viewers of The Oath don’t turn to movie theaters to find enlightenment on important, impactful issues of the day, though, maybe there’s just the pragmatic value of getting advice on how to keep upcoming holiday gatherings such as Thanksgiving from exploding into intra-familial-warfare, even if it’s just the acid-verbal kind rather than actual battles as Chris' crowd experienced. 

*That is, the idea of animus understood as “hostility,” as in “animosity,” not necessarily Carl Jung's concept of the unconscious masculine side of a woman, although even that definition contains the inference of unleashed power which could lead to aggressive bullying or destructive acts rather than thoughtful, constructive results.  (But, as detailed in this link, Jung’s original ideas clearly reflect some influence from his sometimes-colleague, Sigmund Freud, in presenting the positive aspect of the animus in a woman as being rational, logical thereby calming her passion-fueled-emotions which could lead to her being self-centered, bitchy; the author of this link, however, sincerely tries to enhance those retrograde aspects of Jung's animus ideaand anima, the unconscious female side of a manbut if you care to explore this proposition within Jung’s study of universal archetypes in the human psyche you would need, as that link-author encourages, to read in much more detail on animusand animato better understand what I’ve grossly simplified here.)

Bottom Line Final Comments: As noted above, I thank Mick LaSalle for encouraging me to see The Oath (my juror’s opinion’s still out on it being one of the best of 2018, but it’s certainly intriguing, relevant, worth time and attention no matter what your politics may be—in that there’s lots to both offend and reaffirm you, conservative or liberal), which might well never have happened had I also checked the usual suspects of critical consensus where I find the reviewers surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes offer only a marginally-supporive 59% of positive reviews while those at Metacrtic emerge as astonishingly-close (rather than being notably more negative) with their 58% average score.  Audience response hasn’t been all that embracing either, as this film’s been in domestic (U.S.-Canada) release for 2 weeks but has generated only a pittance of ticket sales$258 thousand—although playing in just 300 theaters nationwide doesn’t help much (that’s up from the opening weekend of just 10 venues so maybe a slow rollout's in process, although there’s little momentum nurturing such a strategy along).  Its position on the chart moved up doubly since its debut, going from #42 to #21 last weekend, but given the hefty presence of (along with audience response to) Halloween [2018] (David Gordon Green) with $90.5 million worldwide income in its release weekend, A Star Is Born [2018] (Bradley Cooper; review in our October 11, 2018 posting) with $201.7 million worldwide, Venom [2018—to clarify this isn’t the character’s previous appearance in Spider-Man 3 {Sam Raimi, 2007}] (Ruben Fleischer) with $461.8 million worldwide (the latter 2 in release for 3 weeks, all 3 playing in almost 4,000 domestic theaters, all 3 needing a bit of PR clarification these are new productions despite sharing the titles of long-ago-releases) certainly The Oath will never achieve such coverage nor ticket sales, but rather than offering us frightful or romantic escapism it provides biting satire (to go along with biting down on that turkey dinner, at least until Chris storms off to the driveway) directly addressing the cultural clashes currently rending the fabric of whatever level of tolerance was slowly building in the U.S. over the past few decades, while weaving in as much humor as these serious circumstances can allow especially when death could become an option as tensions mount for the Powells on Black Friday.

 As you scores of faithful readers well know (even the ones Google cited for awhile as being from an Unknown Region; I guess they’ve improved their mapping software since then or it was just another area now annexed by Russia [seriously, I do get regular hits from Russia, mistakenly thinking this blog’s a voting booth, I guess]; if you scroll to the very end of this posting you’ll find a tally of where readership’s come from over the previous week, so if it interests you feel free to check weekly tallies at the conclusion of other recent Two Guys posts*), I usually conclude each review with a Musical Metaphor to offer final commentary from the perspective of some popular song (you wouldn’t expect me to use an unpopular one, would you?).  For The Oath I considered something from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album (1979) but, after briefly hearing a bit of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (from his 1971 album of the same name) while leaving the chiropractor’s office recently (neck issues from mild concussion after too-strenuous-exercise/dehydration-blackout all healed but lower-back-issues [just from being almost 71] are ongoing) I decided to go with that one instead, at https:// (a live 1972 performance intercut with some inner-city-footage) because even though it came at a time when the lyrics were referencing deaths and social upheavals due to the Vietnam War or urban riots it’s still relevant today in our fragmented society, shown truthfully even if in extreme fashion in The Oath, where “You know we’ve got to find a way To bring some lovin’ here today [… because] We don’t need to escalate […] Don’t punish me with brutality Talk to me, so you can see Oh, what’s going on.”  Of course, just reading about this film may bring up too much tension about the metastasizing-social-divides we’re facing, so maybe I should just end musically the same way as The Oath, with a simple-but-lively-instrumental from a different Mason, Mason Williams’ "Classical Gas" (found on his 1968 album The Mason Williams Phonographic Record), followed by a couple of hope-to-raise-your-spirits-ditties from him (possibly stirring giddy optimism—in me for sure—about a real-world-Presidential abdication [as much of a fantasy as that may seem, but hope springs eternal]), 2 of his “Them” poems (from The Mason Williams Listening Matter 1964 album), "Them Lunch Toters" and "Them Hors D'Oeuvers".  I'm posting this on Unity Day, October 24, 2018 when we're all encouraged to practice kindness, acceptance, inclusion, so I hope Mr. Williams helps you stay happy, well into the next time we meet.

*But, when I opened my Google stats to start posting I found the Unknown Region’s back again.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, Two Guys in the Dark greatly appreciate your ongoing support.
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Here’s more information about The Oath: (2:16 short interview statements from writer/director/actor Ike Barinholtz and actors Tiffany Haddish, Meredith Hagner, Jon Barinholtz)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 4,517 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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