Written by Lynn Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Starring Marc Maron, Jon Bass and Michaela Watkins
MPAA rating: R for language throughout
Running time: 1 hour and 28 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
Director Lynn Shelton is known for her collaborations with the Duplass Brothers (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Outside In), as well as her film Laggies which stars Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell and Chloë Grace Moretz and is beloved by many. Comedy and improvisation have also been through-lines of Shelton’s work, with her directing numerous TV shows including Marc Maron’s TV series Maron, his Netflix special Too Real and four episodes of GLOW. Now at the age of 55, Shelton has given Maron his first starring role in Sword of Trust, as Mel, the owner of a pawn shop. He works there with his hopeless assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) and has regular visits from his friend Jimmy (Al Elliott) and his ex-girlfriend Dierdre (Lynn Shelton). One day, couple Cynthia (Jillian Bell, known for 22 Jump Street and Rough Night) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) come in with a sword inherited from Cynthia’s grandfather. This sparks a chain of events which leads to adventure, peril and self-discovery.
The hapless foursome (Mel, Nathaniel, Cynthia and Mary) become embroiled with a shady group on the internet who believe in the conspiracy theory that the south won the Civil War, but the government covered it up. They think that Cynthia’s sword will form part of the “proof” for their crazy beliefs and therefore offer a lot of money for it. Much of the humor comes from everybody trying to keep their story straight and the loose improvisational style definitely helps the feeling that everyone is making this up as they go along. Watkins and Bell make a great good cop/bad cop double-act, while Maron’s seething crankiness with everybody, especially Bass’ Nathaniel oozes off the screen.
The level of detail in the production design by Jon Lavin and set decoration by Prissy Lee is impressive for a low-budget indie. The scene in Cynthia’s grandfather’s house is only brief, but a realistic lived-in world with a sense of history has been built up. The pawn shop is a treasure trove of artefacts which reflect the locale of Birmingham, Alabama. Mel is from New Mexico and his otherness is subtly evoked through his costuming (by Tora Eff). The soundtrack is entirely made up of versions of country and blues songs from Maron, including an original track which plays over the closing credits. The editing by Tyler L. Cook is incredibly skillful – boiling down hundreds of hours of improvised footage to what was needed for the plot, whilst also maintaining the fast-paced, dry-witted dynamic between the characters.
Toby Huss, a great character actor who has recently been impressive in Halt and Catch Fire, hilariously plays Hog Jaws – one of the main henchmen for the covert conspirators. Once the action moves to the ‘compound’ of the confederate cult, things escalate to farcical proportions, but the movie remains extremely funny. There is also an extended sequence in the back of a truck on the way to the compound which is surprisingly emotional, as layers are stripped away from Mel, in particular, as he discusses his history with Dierdre and drug-use.
As well as the “south winning the Civil War” conspiracy theory, Nathaniel also falls prey to other internet crackpot rabbit-holes, including flat-earthers. It is an interesting and depressing aspect of modern society that in today’s era of “fake news” there is an increasingly large portion of the population who believe you should question everything, including scientific facts. It’s quite risky to explore these themes in a pretty broad comedy, but Shelton mostly pulls it off.
Hopefully Marc Maron will have more of a film career after this – he has put in a lot of groundwork on TV and radio, in both comedy and music, but he does have emotional depth in his performances as well (which can be seen in one of the best TV shows of recent years – GLOW). There has just been a retrospective of Lynn Shelton’s career at American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, demonstrating that she should be taken seriously as a director, even if all of her work has a comedic bent. Shelton’s portrayal of human relationships is always dipped in pathos, as well as examining the funny and ridiculous side of coexisting. With Sword of Trust, she has gathered an ensemble of expert improvisers, who have collaborated to fulfill her vision and succeeded in making a very, very funny film. Definitely worth seeking out.