Sword of Trust Review: Mumblecore Meets Civil War

Sword of Trust Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron and Jon Bass in Lynn Shelton's "Sword of Trust." (IFC Films)

The South rises again thanks to the effortless comic charms of Lynn Shelton and Marc Maron.

What does one talk about, in the back of a bread truck, en route to scam some racists? For the majority of its brief and entertaining runtime – until we get to the back of that truck – Sword of Trust keeps us at arms-length from its characters. Sure, we’re introduced to Mel (Marc Maron), a dry and vaguely tragic figure, leaning over the counter of his pawnshop in Birmingham, Alabama, and his perpetually zoned-out assistant Nathanial (Jon Bass). But it takes a while before we learn just what makes him tick.

We also meet Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins). Cynthia’s grandfather has recently passed away, and instead of leaving her his house (as she had hoped), she’s now the owner of an antique scabbard – and documents claiming the artifact is proof the South actually won the Civil War.

It’s an off-beat premise to be sure, with the four working together to peddle the sword to highest paying white-supremacist. It shouldn’t come as a surprise (or a spoiler) that none of the main characters believe the story they’re selling. Rather, director Lynn Shelton and co-writer Mike O’Brien – who shows up as YouTuber proclaiming that the Earth is hollow in the opening scene – are focused on the relationship between misinformation and money. If bullshit is all around us, why not make a buck in the process?

Shelton’s been directing features and TV for the better part of the last two decades, and she’s been collaborating with Maron for years as well, helming multiple episodes of his IFC show and directing his most recent stand-up special. As a result, there’s no fat on this movie, with Shelton guiding the comedian’s improv-instincts towards a pretty superb performance. The filmmaker also plays Deirdre, Mel’s longtime ex, and though her time in front of the camera is limited, the particulars of their relationship make up Sword of Trust’s healthy emotional backbone.

What does one talk about, in the back of a bread truck, en route to scam some racists?

Maron holds up his end of the bargain too, finding some genuine pathos within Mel’s predicament. His usual schtick is still funny here, but his crusty irritation works to inform this character; in other words, this isn’t just Maron playing Maron. The rest of the ensemble turn in strong performances as well, even if nobody else comes across as quite as fully-formed.

But where Sword of Trust struggles is in its depiction of America’s underbelly. For the most part, the con elements here don’t mesh particularly well with the individual arcs, but again, the film is so adamant in its aim to not waste your time that it doesn’t really matter. Still, the world Mel and company set foot in when they exit the bread truck is somewhat ill-conceived, falling apart completely by the middle of the third act.  

The most interesting insight presented here is the idea that the constant misinformation that surrounds us could infiltrate our own psyches, but Sword of Trust never quite develops this notion past a couple of punchlines. These minor blemishes stop the film from being a true-must see, but there’s still a lot to recommend here. While the humor isn’t as raucous as something like Booksmart, those who enjoy Maron’s low-key style will certainly enjoy themselves. In the midst of a summer of loud, overblown disappointments, Sword of Trust successfully cuts through the noise. 

Sword of Trust is currently playing at the Music Box Theater and hits VOD July 19.

Sword of Trust Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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