Nobody gets sliced or diced in Sword Of Trust, but neither is the film’s title wholly metaphorical. There’s an actual sword to be reckoned with, one that was allegedly instrumental in the South winning the Civil War. If that sounds like obvious nonsense to you, join the club: Birmingham pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron) isn’t buying it, either. He might buy the sword, though, after his dopey, conspiracy-minded assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) does some quick Googling and discovers an entire wacko fringe that fervently believes the Confederacy was victorious, and are willing to pay top dollar for supporting evidence. Unfortunately for Mel, the sword’s current owner, Cynthia (Jillian Bell), and Cynthia’s wife, Mary (Michaela Watkins), insist on being part of the negotiation, since they need the proceeds to buy the house Cynthia had mistakenly assumed she was inheriting. Before long, the four of them are huddled together in the rear of what looks like a serial killer’s van, being driven to meet with a potential buyer whose identity is unknown.
That’s a fair amount of goofy plot, but Sword Of Trust employs it primarily as a springboard for first-rate improvisation, comic and otherwise. This is the ninth feature directed by Lynn Shelton, who first made a significant splash 10 years ago with Humpday, and has always excelled at orchestrating improv work that pushes actors in surprising directions in ways that are sharp and focused rather than aimless. Shelton’s recent efforts, like last year’s Outside In, have been more conventionally dramatic, and less successful; here, she’s gone back to her impulsive roots, and assembled a superb team of onscreen collaborators. (She also appears briefly and to fine effect as Mel’s junkie ex.) First and foremost among them is Maron, who proves that his turn on GLOW is no fluke—he’s a real actor, equally at home with caustic wit and understated heartbreak. The lengthy van ride at the film’s midpoint provides the whole main cast (but especially Maron) with an opportunity to dig deeper than one might expect from such a preposterous narrative, without sacrificing laughs or undermining the tenuous reality of the situation. They all deliver.
The overtly funny stuff is more hit-and miss. Toby Huss (Halt And Catch Fire) and Dan Bakkedahl (Veep) have fun as the scary dudes looking to purchase the sword—Huss’ prickly, intimidating character is even named Hog Jaws. But they’re flanked by a couple of hick stereotypes (Timothy Paul and Whitmer Thomas) who are so dimwitted that Maron almost seems to find them too pathetic for first-rate ridicule. The film’s climactic showdown also fails to take full advantage of its premise (conceived by Shelton with A.P. Bio creator Mike O’Brien), focusing too heavily on the sword at the expense of the trust. There’s a great tragicomedy to be mined from the current national obsession with blatantly idiotic conspiracy theories, but it would require more than the superficial feints we get here. Still, it’s a pleasure to see Shelton in her element again, guiding actors to places that feel unexpected yet authentic. Maron is an ideal match for her sensibility, and they make terrific scene partners, too. May this be the start of something special.