There will always be a special place in my heart for what I like to call ‘small-town folk chase big dreams’ movies. The likes of Napoleon Dynamite, Hot Rod, Dazed and Confused, and yes — even Superbad — walk a thin line: skirting the potentially provocative aspects of their flagrant tone with surprising emotional depth and fleeting moments of poignancy. These films frequently turn their borderline B-movie aesthetics and micro-budgetary constraints to their advantage, incorporating the best of stoner-movie absurdity and soppy indie romance into something entirely new. Sword of Trust fits arguably well into this canon, a reliable if not a tad middling iteration of the hilarious meandering narrative that abounds whenever we watch group of weirdos just hanging out.
Lynn Shelton — a familiar name to those acquainted with the likes of Fresh Off the Boat and Netflix shows Love and GLOW — serves as writer and director of this self-contained odyssey. The brief is simple enough: ‘out-of-towners’ Mary and Cynthia rock up in good old bible belt Birmingham, Alabama, to settle affairs at the latter’s late grandfather’s house. Shocked to find the house foreclosed by the bank, the two take Cynthia’s only inheritance, a Civil War-era officer’s sword, to local pawn shop owners Mel and Nathaniel in a last-ditch attempt to make some cash. What follows is a downward spiral of conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ as the unwieldy foursome endeavour to capitalise on the sword’s provenance as an apparent ‘prover artefact’; unequivocal evidence that the Southern Confederacy was indeed the real victor of the ‘War of Northern Aggression’, to quote Hog-Jaws, a hillbilly-manifest stereotype of a character.
Thus Shelton and her actors progress the story at a relaxed pace, preferring to indulge in the witty banter between characters over development of the central inciting event. Fortunately, this is where the film is at its absolute best. As Mel, Marc Maron takes centre stage as equal parts serial shit-talker and luddite. Jon Bass’ Nathaniel meanwhile embraces more of a full-force dope persona, his affable pointlessness taking form as an abject lack of self-awareness and penchant for adopting outlandish opinions he read about online. The fractured mentor-mentee relationship between the two is golden, making them bitingly hilarious foils to each other; Mel seeming oddly to relish in his anger at Nathaniel’s indefinite insolence. That said, the occasional attempt at *eDgY* social commentary during dialogue scenes between them came across a bit trite — read: “Here’s the problem with believing bullshit: It’s that eventually it’ll erode away the real truth.” Sobering comedy in the ‘fake news’ area proves itself a hard sell, but thankfully moments so obvious are few and far between.
Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bells’ Mary and Cynthia are an utter joy to watch. Many of the clearly-improvised scenes between them play out as comedic lightning in a bottle. A particular moment between all four leads in the back of a truck showcases both Bell’s penchant for off-the-wall insanity — as her brief role in 22 Jump Street may also recall — as well as Maron’s surprising depth, delivering an impactful monologue on how lost love and substance abuse eventuated in his ownership of the Pawn Shop. A scene between Nathaniel and Cynthia involving flat Earth theory was likewise conducive of a unique kind of gleeful cringefest.
Although I struggled to swallow what was a juvenile and garish final act at best, one could argue that a blinding anticlimax was forgivable in a film that knew for the most part when to exaggerate to high heaven and when to stay mercifully restrained. Sword of Trust typifies a ‘journey over destination’ approach to storytelling, with its best moments found in the quirky characterisation and sharp rambling dialogue of people with thick Southern accents yelling over each other.
Expect brandished screwdrivers, historical conflation, and a solo blues-guitar score provided by Maron himself. Sword of Trust knows you’ll believe whatever it tells you to.