You could barely say Sword of Trust had a script that was “written” — the cast was merely given a basic outline of the story, presumably with its pertinent plot points, and then they were left to improvise all the lines. That leaves this film more of a feat of editing than anything else, really. One wonders what other, completely different movies could have been cut together with the unused footage.
This approach is a departure for director Lynn Shelton, who has a history of sensitive handling of potentially problematic premises: Humpday (2009); Your Sister’s Sister (2012); Outside In (2017). Shelton’s past films have generally been dramas, in some cases dramedies, but Sword of Trust, in which she hands off the task of dialogue to a quartet of skilled comic actors, is the first I have seen that is a straightforward comedy. Her other films have been serious stories with funny stuff in them; this one is a funny story with serious subtexts.
I won’t mislead, you, though — I would not call Sword of Trust “uproarious.” I would call it . . . consistently funny. Certainly a worthwhile amusement. You won’t be laughing your ass off, but you will find yourself entertained.
The main cast of four is mostly focused on Mel, the Birmingham, Alabama pawn shop owner played by Marc Maron, in his first lead role in a feature film. Maron’s and Shelton’s professional relationship has developed rather organically over the past few years, after she appeared on his WTF with Marc Maron podcast in 2015. She directed a couple episodes of his quasi-autobiographical show Maron in 2016; then directed his Too Real comedy special in 2017. Turns out, they work quite well together, as Sword of Trust best illustrates.
Seasoned comics have to be good at improvising, adapting material to sometimes unpredictable circumstances, and Maron is up to the task. The same goes for the others in the film with him: John Bass as Nathaniel, his gullible pawn shop employee; and Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell as lesbian couple Mary and Cynthia, who come into the shop looking to sell a Civil War-era sword willed to Cynthia by her grandfather.
Where things get interesting is the personal letter written to Cynthia by her grandfather apparently during his last years when his mind was going, given all the details of the sword’s supposed story that he is inconsistent about; and the supposed “authenticating documents” accompanying it. The claim is that the documents “prove” the South actually won the Civil War, thereby increasing the artifact’s value.
Never mind the preposterousness of such a claim. Are we all living in some alternate reality today where the Southern states are the poorest and least educated, then? But as Sword of Trust shows, rational thinking is never the purview of people with such beliefs, as Nathanial illustrates with his “convincing” evidence that the Earth is flat.
That aside, after some tentative approaches to each other, in the end Mel, Mary and Cynthia all decide to work together on selling the sword to the highest bidder. What follows is a sort of low-rent, American South version of “secret society” shenanigans, including a moving truck ride to an undisclosed location in the country to meet the buyer (played by a perfectly cast Dan Bakkedahl).
And although directed by Lynn Shelton and co-written by her and Mike O’Brien, Sword of Trust has Maron’s DNA all over it, starting with the entire score being credited to him, snippets of his blues guitar riffing just like those he does to close out his podcast episodes. They are a perfect match for this story, as it turns out. A lot of character details come lifted directly from his own life, as well: a Jewish guy originally from New Mexico; a recovering alcoholic now sober for many years. A minor subplot involves an ex girlfriend still struggling to stay off drugs who keeps coming around asking for loans, played by Shelton herself.
Movies so reliant on improvisation rarely work as well as Sword of Trust does. I find myself wondering who cut the trailer to this movie, because it is clearly not the same person who cut the movie itself. The trailer sets up expectations that are, if not exactly low, are midlevel at best. The film itself creates a solid story that features dialogue that doesn’t feel improvised. There is both a consistency and a depth to these characters that indicates a high level of talent and skill for all involved. It just works, in a way storytelling on an improv stage never does. That is arguably faint praise, but this is still a group of artists and entertainers at the top of their game.