Sword of Trust
2019, R, 89 min. Directed by Lynn Shelton. Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas, Al Elliott.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 2, 2019
This marvelous gem of a comedy about a Civil War sword of dubious origin gently tickles the ribs, like when someone close to you lightly scrabbles a sensitive zone of your body to elicit an involuntary reaction of laughter. The manifestation of mirth is brief, but the gratification in being the object of affection remains much longer. You feel that same sort of love watching Sword of Trust, a chuckle-fest of idiosyncratic humor that’s suffused with a fondness for its foursome of slightly quirky characters. (Truthfully, one is a real goofball.) Set somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, the movie reaffirms the notion there’s something in the water in the South that nourishes eccentricity.
The plot has the whiff of a shaggy dog story: Desperate for cash, a lesbian couple (Bell and Watkins) attempt to pawn the antique sword one of them inherited from a recently deceased grandpappy with diminished mental capacity, backed by questionable documentation alleging the relic proves the South really won the War Between the States. After some price haggling, the pair team up with the pawnshop owner (Maron) and his assistant (Bass) to con an online conspiracy theorist (Bakkedahl) who’s intent on disproving the "great hoax of Appomattox" to purchase the artifact for an outrageous sum of money. The movie tiptoes around our political and social climate in the age of Trump, but an uneasiness permeates the comic rhetoric of gimme-cap bubbas ranting about reviving the honor of the Confederacy. One minute, a true believer with the code name Hog Jowls (Huss) – a scarier version of King of the Hill's paranoid next-door neighbor Dale – is pointing a gun with menacing intent, the next he’s ordering a compliant male target with raised arms to dance like a donkey, which is done hilariously.
The cast’s knack for comedy is impeccable, with the actors tapping into a sense of the mildly ludicrous. As the meekish Cynthia and her more aggressive wife Mary, Bell and Watkins demonstrate a fine comic rhythm (both are alums of the improv group the Groundlings), while Bass nearly steals the movie as Nathaniel, the dim-witted employee of Delta Pawn. His slack-jaw expression dominates scenes in which he doesn’t say a word; when he does speak, he makes stupidity both funny and surprisingly sweet. Podcast king and sometime actor Maron plays pawnbroker Mel as the sanest of the bunch, though the character’s participation in the crazy scheme ultimately proves otherwise.
But Maron’s finest moment isn’t a comic one. It comes during a segment in which the four principal characters talk about themselves while confined in the back of a moving van with floor-to-ceiling carpeting, traveling to an unknown destination. (Don’t ask.) When Mel is questioned about a woman named Deirdre (director/co-screenwriter Shelton, doing triple duty) who he offhandedly mentions, his confessional response will floor you. This kind of left turn could have careened the movie right off the road, but Maron’s monologue only enriches it. For a comedy about an old weapon with a dulled blade, Sword of Truth is razor sharp in just about every way.
For an interview with director/co-writer Lynn Shelton, read "A Question of Trust," March 8.