By Kirsten Coachman
“When I came up with the concept of the loyalty oath, I knew that our president was obsessed with loyalty in a way that no other president has been. I knew that idea was resonant,” said writer/director/actor Ike Barinholtz speaking to Academy Art U News in a recent phone interview about his feature directorial debut, “The Oath,” which he also wrote.
In the film, there’s a new White House policy that’s asking American citizens to declare loyalty to the president by signing the Patriot’s Oath; the deadline for signing is the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday. And for those that don’t wish to sign, they are told that there are no repercussions. Barinholtz plays Chris, a liberal political news junkie, who, along with his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish), is stunned by the news.
The week of Thanksgiving, Chris tries to refrain from talking politics during his family’s visit at the urging of both Kai and his mother (Nora Dunn). Tensions rise between Chris and his politically conservative-leaning brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) and girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) throughout the week, which leads to an explosive Thanksgiving dinner. (It’s not really Thanksgiving until there’s arguing at the dinner table, amirite?) The drama has only just begun, as two unexpected visitors from a government agency (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show up at Chris and Kai’s residence on Black Friday.
The idea for the “The Oath” came to Barinholtz following his own Thanksgiving in 2016. “We had a great dinner, and there was like a little bit of tension and then after dinner, when we were kind of having some drinks, my mom and my brother and I got a pretty big argument about what happened in the election,” he shared. “What struck me the next morning when I was rethinking about it was [that] we all voted for the same person and rather enthusiastically. But, it just made me realize like, ‘Oh my God, if things are this kind of tense in this house, what’s happening in other houses?’”
Barinholtz sought to tell a story where the tone matched what he would feel when he would read the news, and that was also representative of the current climate and the gamut of emotions he and others have experienced. While known for doing comedy, he didn’t want to overlook “the very real and dire things that people are dealing with right now,” but also didn’t want to lose the familial and human aspect if he were to lean all the way in the direction of a dramatic thriller.
“I always kind of knew that I was going to have a Thanksgiving dinner and I knew I was going to have a guy taped up to a chair,” Barinholtz said. “[It was] starting from there and building this story that is a little different than what we’ve seen, but I think is a fair representation of at least how I feel in 2018.”
To help tell this Thanksgiving story, Barinholtz assembled a cast that included one of the biggest rising stars of the past year as well as his real-life brother, Jon, who came to mind before he even began working on the script. “I saw faces in my head, and my brother was one of them. I knew my brother was a great actor, I saw him back in the day go through the Steppenwolf conservatory in Chicago, and I knew he had depth and range and I also knew, selfishly, that if I cast him, I can draw from our real-life fights over the years and really piss him off and get to that place. … So for him, that was easy, and as far as some of the other cast [members], Tiffany was someone I always had in my head for Kai. I saw her in ‘Keanu,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be married to her in a movie one day.’
Other actors he had in mind as he began working on the film included Carrie Brownstein and longtime pal John Cho. “I needed like the nicest, most relaxed, nurturing man, and that’s just John Cho,” Barinholtz said.
Throughout the film, Barinholtz’s character Chris continues to be distraught over news reports concerning the oath, which was something that the writer/director himself could personally relate to. “I was a slightly less, I hope, awful version of Chris the last two years. I was just completely letting what I read on Twitter or the article I just read in the Post or the Times dictate my mood and behavior,” he explained. “I think we have to be aware of these radical and pretty scary things happening around the country, but at the same time, you know, it says right there in the constitution: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … We can’t let [the news] rob us of the small things and the big things that make us happy.”
For those that go see “The Oath,” Barinholtz wants the audience to be entertained by the film, “laugh, and be a little scared.” However, he shared that he ultimately hopes that filmgoers are inspired to keep the lines of communication open with those they don’t share similar ideological viewpoints with. “I think that we should try to have these conversations as much as possible—I’m not the civility police—but try our best to get our point across and hear their point and let them know that they’ve been heard.”
He continued, “We are in a bubbled up culture now. We have to accept that. If we cut these ties, we’re going to make the bubbles smaller and thicker and harder to permeate. And I can’t imagine the country can move forward if we are literally not talking to each other. My ideal reaction is someone walks out of the movie, they’re like, ‘That was hilarious, and I got scared. Tiffany Haddish is amazing. I should call my brother.’”
“The Oath” opens in San Francisco on October 19.