Alibi V.28 No.31 • Aug 1-7, 2019 

Film Review

The Sword of Trust

Tiny indie comedy keeps mumblecore alive

Sword of Trust ()

Directed by Lynn Shelton

Cast: Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins

Sword of Trust
That is one business-savvy bunch.

It appears these days as if the subgenre of independent film known as Mumblecore is fading into the sands of history. Many of its founding practitioners have split off into television (Joe Swanberg wrote, directed, produced and edited three seasons of “Easy” for Netflix, Mark and Jay Duplass gave us HBO’s “Room 104” and “Togetherness”) or gone straight to the big time (Greta Gerwig locked down five Academy Award nominations for 2017’s Lady Bird, Andrew Bujalski is off directing Disney’s upcoming live-action Lady and the Tramp). Based on her latest offering, the unabashedly low-budget dramedy The Sword of Trust, at least writer-director-producer Lynn Shelton (We Go Way Back, Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Laggies) has stuck to her alternative roots.

The Sword of Trust maintains the scruffy, naturalistic, improv-driven feel of the Mumblecore genre taking us to down-and-dirty Birmingham, Ala. for a tale of chatty misfits and antique weaponry. Cynthia (Jillian Bell from “Eastbound & Down,” “Workaholics” and “Idiotsitter”) returns to her Southern hometown with her girlfriend Mary (Michaela Watkins from “Trophy Wife,” “Casual” and “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”) to claim an inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather. Instead of leaving her his house (which was surrendered to the bank on a reverse mortgage), grandpa bequeaths Mary an antique Civil War sword. A dotty letter claims the sword is absolute proof that the Union Army surrendered to the Confederates—meaning that, contrary to what the “mainstream” history books say, the South actually won the Civil War. Neither Cynthia nor Mary believe the story, but they spin it nonetheless to local pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron) in hopes of selling the weapon off for some decent money.

Cynical old Mel doesn’t believe the story either. But when his generally useless, conspiracy theory-loving employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass from “Big Time in Hollywood, FL”) turns him on to the deep world of internet believers, Mel starts to think there might be some money to be made here. The two sellers and the two pawn shop workers eventually agree to split any profits they make selling the sword to a mysterious online figure offering thousands for “proof” that the South won the Civil War. This sword might just be the “Holy Grail” they’re looking for. Despite certain reservations about giving a gang of Southern rednecks all the bragging rights they need, our mismatched quartet embarks on a slightly scary, but mostly silly journey down the rabbit hole of racism and revisionist history.

The Sword of Trust boasts a solid ensemble cast (including a funny turn from Toby Huss—Artie from “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” don’t ya know!). But Marc Maron is the unarguable heart and soul of the film. Between IFC’s “Maron” and Netflix’s “GLOW,” the comedian/podcaster’s acting chops have really blossomed. (It should be noted that Shelton directed episodes of both “Maron” and “GLOW.”) An early scene in which Mel encounters an old girlfriend in search of money allows Maron to ground his character in some serious emotional territory. Like most films that have fallen under the Mumblecore label, The Sword of Trust is more interested in character and dialogue than in plot. That particular scene’s improv feels gritty and almost uncomfortably real. Some later moments (a discussion between Bass and Bell about ghosts, for example) just seem like runtime-stretching digressions. That comes with the territory, really.

The gang eventually ends up in what looks like some dangerous circumstances, shuttled to some White Power compound in the back of a sketchy van. But Shelton’s skeletal script doesn’t really have the patience to follow through on the tension. An extended middle section in which our four main characters chat it up and actually get to know one another is enlightening, but takes a lot of the momentum out of the narrative. In the end, everything gets wrapped up in a rather casual manner. Despite the big topics dangled in the film’s setup (history, racism, our national identity), Shelton’s intent is just to hang out with some interesting, funny people for 85 minutes or so.

Taken on its own modest terms, The Sword of Trust is quirky and amusing and has just a tiny bit to say about human beings learning to trust one another. Maron’s gruff charm keeps it from becoming too twee (a danger all mumblecore films face). Any viewers longing for the loose, improvisational indie films of the early 2000s will feel right at home with this microcosmic, character-driven dramedy.


Sword of Trust

The owner (Marc Maron) of a seedy pawn shop in Birminghan, Ala. and his conspiracy theory-loving employee (Jon Bass) strike a bargain with a dotty woman (Jillian Bell) and her hardheaded girlfriend (Michaela Watkins) to sell off a mysterious Civil War sword to a bunch of racist rednecks. According to documentation left behind by one of the women's grandfather, the sword is an artifact that proves the Confederates defeated the Union Army and won the Civil War. Mumblecore director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, My Sister's Sister) is more interested in character and dialogue than the big issues (history, racism) this film suggests. But the excellent Maron leads the rest of the cast by example, coming up with some quite funny and surprisingly emotional moments amid his improvised dialogue. 89 minutes R. (Opens Thursday 781)