Spending most of the last several years as a director-for-hire on TV comedies, Lynn Shelton has had a few opportunities to help comedian/podcast star Marc Maron develop his acting chops: In addition to shooting his latest standup special, she’s helmed episodes of both his namesake series and GLOW. So it’s no surprise he’s at ease working for her in Sword of Trust, an enjoyably shaggy follow-up to some of Shelton’s more plotted-out recent features. Playing a pawn-shop owner who hopes to sell a Civil War saber to white supremacists for a fortune, Maron leads a small ensemble like a natural; both the actor and his director seem happy to play to their fans in this modest outing, worrying little about straying beyond their comfort zones.
Running a tiny pawn shop isn’t that different from hosting an interview podcast. You stand behind a counter, keeping things interesting, while strangers bring in odd personal baggage they hope you’ll find valuable. Maron’s Mel has been doing this for a while in his corner of Birmingham, Alabama, carrying a nearly worthless employee on the payroll (Jon Bass’ Nathaniel) and making small talk with the proprietors of nearby stores. But before a Clerks vibe settles over the film, an unusual opportunity presents itself.
The stakes are smaller than they seem in a comedy playing to Maron’s strengths.
A local named Cynthia (Jillian Bell) just inherited what appears to be a Civil War-era weapon from her grandfather. Looking at some documents left with it, she and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) realize the old man believed it was a relic from an incident buried by historians: a battle in which a Union general surrendered to the Confederacy. As they try to sell this bizarre artifact to Mel, we learn that an online community of white supremacists has sprung up around such lore: The Invictucians (a fancy, archaic synonym for “Truthers”) happily pay large sums of money for what they call “prover items,” thinking that eventually they will have enough to demonstrate that the South actually won the war.
Having located one of these nut-jobs online, Mel partners with the women to sell the sword for thousands of dollars. But first they must satisfy the buyer’s associate, “Hog Jaws” (Toby Huss), a mysterious and precise man who inspects the item, then tells our heroes to come with him. The women, Nathaniel and Mel unwisely get in the back of a windowless moving truck, to be driven to a White Power compound God-knows-where.
Sitting in the truck for the long ride, the strangers open up to each other. The movie allows any narrative momentum to drop away so they can talk about their pasts, especially Mel: Like Maron, he once nurtured a drug addiction, seeking a bohemian life in New York City before getting sober and moving away. He was followed south by an old girlfriend who failed to kick her habits — Deirdre, played convincingly at the film’s start by Shelton — and this bit of unfinished business eventually proves to be the movie’s heart. But first we’ll have to meet the racists.
What happens once the truck’s cargo door opens is much less dire than we might expect. Here in the country, Hog Jaws has buddies with names like “Screen Door”; he fends off penny-ante rednecks who want the sword for themselves; and he works for a mysterious rich man (Dan Bakkedahl) with a grand vision for setting the history books straight. Should Cynthia and Mel really be helping these creeps prove their point?
While they don’t exactly treat the pic’s racists as a joke, screenwriters Shelton and Mike O’Brien don’t take them very seriously, either, finding them less impressive than the reputation they try to cultivate. Cutting between this crew and some of Nathaniel’s eager-to-please blathering, the movie equates their theories with flat-earth nonsense, which may rile viewers who think this is no time to be light-hearted about white supremacy. But Sword of Trust has a different kind of social justice in mind, and finds surprising ways to keep the Dixie-heads from getting what they want. Its concerns are person-to-person rather than broadly political in the end, which is far from surprising in a Shelton film. On this modest scale, it finds reason for hope.
Production company: Forager Films
Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Tim Paul, Whitmer Thomas, Lynn Shelton
Director: Lynn Shelton
Screenwriters: Lynn Shelton, Mike O’Brien
Producers: Ted Speaker, Lynn Shelton
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker, Joe Swanberg
Director of photography: Jason Oldak
Production designer: John Lavin
Costume designer: Tora Eff
Editor: Tyler L. Cook
Composer: Marc Maron
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)