After taking on more tightly scripted projects with her recent films and TV work, director Lynn Shelton swings all the way in the other direction with her latest feature, Sword of Trust. Heavily improvised in the vein of her breakthrough films Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, Sword is also Shelton’s most overtly comedic film yet, a goofy shaggy-dog tale set in the world of unhinged conspiracy theorists. The movie is so loose and improvisational that it sometimes feels like an extended comedy sketch, especially in the first half, which takes place mostly inside the Birmingham, Alabama, pawn shop owned by cranky musician Mel (Marc Maron).
Along with his dim-witted, conspiracy-obsessed assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass), Mel deals with a steady stream of annoying, clueless customers, reacting with Maron’s trademark acerbic wit. At first it seems like lesbian couple Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell) might be the latest morons to cross Mel’s path, trying to sell the Civil War-era sword they inherited from Cynthia’s late grandfather. An incoherent letter left to Cynthia, along with some dubious historical documents, make the claim that the sword provides proof that the South actually won the Civil War, which sounds like another joke in this demented take on Pawn Stars.
As Mel discovers, though, there’s a thriving online subculture of hardcore Civil War truthers who share the beliefs that Cynthia’s grandfather espoused, and soon Mel, Nathaniel, Mary and Cynthia have been drawn into this shady underworld in the hopes of making a huge amount of money selling the sword. The movie’s second half takes them on a journey to a rural compound where these Confederate stalwarts gather, guided by a fastidious redneck who calls himself Hog Jaws (Toby Huss).
The presence of characters with names like Hog Jaws suggests a broad comedy, but Sword is a bit tonally inconsistent, never quite sure whether to mock the conspiracy-mongers or worry about their insidious effect on America. It mostly comes down on the side of mockery, and the heaviest dramatic moments instead focus on Mel’s melancholy, especially his fractured relationship with his drug-addict ex, Deirdre (Shelton). Maron is capable of delivering a dramatic monologue nearly as effectively as a comic insult, but the serious material never quite takes off, making the movie’s closing attempt at emotional resonance ring slightly hollow.
Along the way, though, it’s a lot of fun to watch, and the central foursome, all accomplished pros at comedy and improv, play off each other very well, allowing the improvised dialogue to build into some very funny crescendos (every time any of the characters attempt to tell the story behind the sword’s origin, they sound like they’re on an episode of Drunk History). The minimal plot meanders itself to an anticlimax, but that’s part of the point, that all of these people are just kind of muddling their way along, hoping to stumble on some sort of meaning.
With his self-titled IFC series (on which Shelton worked as a director) and especially his role on Netflix’s GLOW, Maron has come into his own as an actor, and he ably carries the movie. Watkins and Bell have such great chemistry together that it’s a bit disappointing that Mary and Cynthia have only one scene away from the core group (when they first receive Cynthia’s inheritance), but Shelton keeps the ensemble interplay front and center. Shelton creates a strong sense of place in Birmingham’s slightly rundown strip malls and the surrounding rural countryside, but mostly this movie is just about putting some talented, funny people together and letting them riff.