Sword of Trust (2019)
Writer/director Lynn Shelton is a filmmaker that has a habit of flying under the radar with her wonderful entries in the fly-on-the-wall hipster mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas. The hilariously awkward Humpday punctuated insecure masculinity and was on my Top Ten list for 2009, and 2012’s Your Sister’s Sister was another laser-like focus on characters trying to deal with a lifetime of relationship secrets coming out. Both of those movies have been remade as French films too, with Humpday becoming 2012’s Do Not Disturb and Your Sister’s Sister becoming 2015’s Half Sister, Full Love (which sounds more like a porn title to my ears). Sword of Trust is one part mumblecore drama, one part screwball comedy, and a bit of a lovely, shambly mess.
Mel (Marc Maron) owns and operates a pawn shop in a small Alabama town. He’s used to losers and lowlifes and junkies coming through and giving their sad stories. Enter Cynthia (Jullian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a gay couple looking to make the most of a strange inheritance. Cynthia’s grandfather gave her a Union sword and a story that says this sword is proof that the South did not lose the Civil War after all… somehow. The trio, along with Mel’s dimwitted shop employee Nathaniel (John Bass), hatch a scheme to try and con an underground Confederate memorabilia group for all its worth.
The real draw of Sword of Trust is the low-key comic sensibilities of the cast. As I wrote previously in my review for Your Sister’s Sister: “There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours.” Sword of Trust (written by Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien) probably ranks a distant third in the three Shelton-directed movies I’ve seen, but her skills and care are still evident in characterization and empathy.
Maron has matured into an impressive dramatic actor thanks to Netflix’s wonderful wrestling series GLOW. He has a natural sad sack aura to him, as well as a brittle fuse that’s in danger of being set off at any moment. The character of Mel seems tailor-made for him, and I wouldn’t put it past Shelton that it was (she directed several episodes of GLOW as well as Maron’s 2017 comedy special). He’s the biggest mystery of the movie and we get hints early on in a disarmingly dramatic moment when his ex-girlfriend Deidre (Shelton herself) tries getting collateral so she can secure a job. She professes that he knows “she’s good for it,” and that this time will be different, and the way the two of them seem to circle a larger conversation, one filled with hurt and heartache, is a masterful example in writing subtlety and subtext. We’ll have their personal connections revealed later in the movie, but this scene serves as a tantalizing clue that there’s more to this movie than a group of oddballs in a pawn shop. It’s the first stab at drama and it’s quite effective, and Shelton can be one hell of an actress too. She leaves an impression as a character you want to get back to, and sadly the movie keeps her at a distance as we learn more.
The rest of the movie doesn’t quite tap into this vein (more on that below) but the agreeable camaraderie of the characters is a major selling point. Mumblecore movies are typically character-driven and small observational movies that lean on broken people navigating their way through the world, pushing forward onto greater emotional growth by the closing credits. If you’re not a fan of these kinds of movies, then Sword of Trust might still prove appealing based upon the broader comedy elements and the wackiness that can come at a moment’s notice, like when a man at gunpoint instructs each hostage to dance in a different bizarre style. Otherwise, Sword of Trust is a movie that ambles along on its own gentle wavelengths, buoyed by the performances and interactions of its core cast. There’s an uneasy alliance between the foursome. Primarily this is with Maron and Bell’s characters, the two most significant players. Bell (22 Jump Street) is enjoyably sunny and awkward as a woman trying to make the best of a bad inheritance. It’s the most dramatic and restrained I’ve ever seen Bell, best known for loud-mouthed, course comic supporting roles. Watkins (Casual) is more a force to push her girlfriend into further action, and Bass (Baywatch) is kept as the goofball meant for easy ridicule as a symbol of preferential ignorance. He’s never more than a quick punchline, especially as he tries explaining his scientifically strained flat Earth beliefs.
They’re an enjoyable group and watching them bicker, jostle for leverage, and ultimately work as a team for common cause it sweetly entertaining. Everyone is trying to make the best of an unexpected situation, with each playing their part to try and capitalize on this strange money-making scheme. A lengthy conversation in the back of a truck bounces from character to character, each revealing further layers they feel comfortable now sharing. It’s the kind of enjoyable character beats that the mumblecore genre is known for, crafting relatable, interesting, flawed characters and watching them play off one another. There’s also plenty of comedy because of how the characters are drawn, like when Mel insists that an attacker stole his own screwdriver to use as a threatening weapon. This small comedic beat grows and grows as it almost consumes Mel so that even when that harried situation clears up he has to know whether or not it really was his own screwdriver. That’s a sly comedy beat connected to character. Shetlon’s film has an improvised feel but honed to a script that provides a necessary degree of discipline.
Despite the amiability of the cast and the comedic potential of the premise, Sword of Trust doesn’t really rise above being a pleasant if minor hang-out picture. I feel like if it was ultimately about the characters then we needed a few more scenes where they can grow, be challenged, or simply share their conflicts and histories. If it’s going to be more a wacky send-up of willfully ignorant conspiracy theorists and anti-intellectuals, then I feel like the final act needed more complications and examination. Shelton’s movie settles into a middle ground trying to have the wacky sitcom shenanigans and the heartfelt, modest mumblecore character beats. It doesn’t feel like either side is fully utilized and explored to its best version. I enjoyed the characters and found the movie getting better as they opened up, especially Maron’s curmudgeonly lead with a guarded past. I also laughed some big laughs at the wacky hijinks of a dysfunctional gang working together to con a group of Confederate revisionists. There are moments that point toward the more studio-friendly, concept-driven version of this movie, like when the gang creates a cover story of them being romantic couples. In Shelton’s film this is a momentary gag and then it’s left behind, also because it occurs so late into the movie. You can see where the escalation of misunderstandings and trouble could make the film a broader comedy. You can also see the avenues where the characters eschew the broad comedy for more intimate, revealing conversations. The resulting film is enjoyable and solid, but I think it would have been better if it had chosen its preferred tone.
Sword of Trust (my fingers keep wanting to type Sword of Truth) is definitely a lesser but still enjoyable film for Shelton and her ensemble. It’s stuck in a pleasant but diverting hangout zone when it could have been more observational or broader and wackier. I was hoping for more of a send-up of the fringes who cling to rumors and disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, whether it’s that the South legitimately lost the war or that the Earth is indeed round. Sword of Trust benefits from a group of actors who can smartly handle improv scenarios while still keeping things true to character. It’s an enjoyable 90 minutes just hanging out with these people, even if the film feels like it’s losing some of its momentum as it veers into its third act. While not as polished, there’s still enough to enjoy and recommend with Shelton’s latest, and she’s a storyteller that deserves an adoring audience.
Nate’s Grade: B