Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.
Sword of Trust has a hooky comedic premise. A gruff Birmingham pawn shop proprietor named Mel (Marc Maron) is offered an odd artifact from the estate of a released deceased residents. The man’s granddaughter (Jillian Bell) and her romantic partner (Michaela Watkins) bring in an old Union Army sword accompanied by documentation that purportedly proves the rusty weapon was presented in surrender to a Confederate general, thereby proving the South won the U.S. Civil War, an alternative fact that holds enormous appeal to a problematically sizable contingent of disgruntled bigots. This isn’t an item that just gets hung on the wall next to battered old guitars, so Mel and his employee (Jon Bass) seek out some angry, well-bankrolled conspiracy theorists online, leading the two of them, as well as the women who found the sword, getting lured into a scenario of clandestine transport and other signs of escalating threat.
This is the kind of comedy that could have become a loud, clumsy farce, and the presence of former Saturday Night Live writer (and briefly cast member) Mike O’Brien as co-credited writer suggests the material could have easily gone through the Lorne Michaels sausage factory to become a vehicle for the bleating antics of one of his cornerstone program’s many alumni. Instead, Sword of Trust is rescued by the other person credited on the screenplay, Lynn Shelton. The veteran indie filmmaker also directs Sword of Trust, giving plenty of improvisational leeway to her cast to help build the verisimilitude needed to give the film some heft and meaning beyond its clever gimmick. As was the case in some of her earlier films that had similar high concept prompts — most notably the 2009 feature Humpday, largely considered her breakthrough — Shelton is only interested in the novel narrative mechanics insofar as they provide an entryway to understand real people. In her correct assessments, funny reactions are only funny if they’re grounded in deep, resonant honesty.
The instigating device in Sword of Trust naturally gives Shelton a chance to make some political points, mostly expounding on the troubling absurdity of zealots of hate. But that’s not the most affecting part of the film. Instead, the real heart of it comes from a side story in which Shelton literally plays a role. The director casts herself as Deirdre, an ex of Mel who he still has feelings for, even as he’s felt obligated to box her out of his life because of recurring substance abuse problems. She arrives at the shop looking to pawn a ring. She says it’s because she needs to repair her car so she can get to the new job where she’s doing well. Mel believes the transaction will instead fund another cycle of self-destruction, so he refuses. The emotional skirmish hangs over the film because it hangs over Mel, and Maron has a wonderful scene in which he recounts a whole bittersweet history with a survivors weariness.
Sword of Trust, then, isn’t made to engage in easy mockery of Confederacy apologists or to merely give thrillers a funny spin. At the core, it’s about something real and poignant. It’s about the many ways people struggle to relate to one another, identifying their wounds and trying ever so gently to heal them. I liked a lot of Sword of Truth, but what I’ll remember most clearly is the look on Deirdre’s face — on Shelton’s face — as she tries to make this man she cares about understand that this time is different, this times she’s better, this time she’ll come through if she gets a little help. There is hope and history at once, and Shelton acknowledges that they are operating in conflict. Because that’s what Shelton is interested in, and it’s what she was always interested in. Movingly, she made films to help us understand that we are all complicated and that the complication need not be an impediment. It’s what makes us beautiful.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the Last One tag.