Are there Civil War truthers? I won’t Google this because the world is terrible and dumb enough without knowing that there are people out there who think the Confederates actually did win the Civil War and now operate a shadow government intended to fool the Yankees. Nonetheless, Civil War truthers do make for an intriguing comedy premise. With Sword of Trust, writer/director Lynn Shelton teams up with Saturday Night Live writer Michael Patrick O’Brien for conspiracy theory comedy that’s crackling and poignant.
As you might guess, it begins with a sword.
When her grandfather passes away, sweet Cynthia (Jillian Bell) is drawn back to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, with her no-nonsense wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) in tow. The two anticipate they’ll inherit the old man’s house, but soon learn all Cynthia’s been left is an antique sword that comes with a bizarre handwritten letter proclaiming it proof the South did rise again. Confounded and in need of cash, the couple goes to a local pawnshop to feel out how much they might get for selling this strange family heirloom. There, they meet Mel (Marc Maron), a scowling grump who wears his cynicism like a trenchcoat, heavy and shielding. And then there’s his scrappy assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who is basically a puppy in human form. More specifically, he’s a puppy who is very susceptible to conspiracy theories, including that the earth is really flat. Yeah. So, when Cynthia and Mary come in spilling out this wild tale of “buried” US history, Nathaniel is immediately giddy, where Mel is instantly leery. But when these pawnbrokers learn that Civil War truthers will pay upwards of $50k for “proof” items, they can’t afford to be too skeptical. So begins a quirky journey into a convoluted conspiracy, rural country, and a curious Southern mafia.
While the premise is very “caper,” there’s little sense of urgency to Sword of Trust. Even when our heroes are lured into a paneled van to be driven to a remote, unknown location by a middleman known only as Hog Jaws (Toby Huss), there’s no substantial feeling of danger. This comedy is too low-key for that. The script takes O’Brien’s more absurdist tendencies and knits them with the hallmarks of Shelton’s style. Her characters could be described as losers, but are regarded by the film with deep empathy. When Cynthia excitedly explains her “dream” is to have her own escape room business, it seems comically unambitious. But as the foursome talks, the script gives justification and nuance to her that undercuts her initial naiveté. Similarly, while Mel might seem a huckster or a dried-up never-was rock star, a subplot about his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Shelton in a tender cameo) gives depth to his disillusionment. Shelton has always been graceful in crafting a tangle of characters who are funny, flawed, and rivetingly vulnerable. So, instead of the kind of fast-paced quips and heightened performances you’d get in movies like Ocean’s Eleven, The Nice Guys or The Big Lebowski, she offers a more grounded style, true to her signature. But even without tension, this film is brightly hilarious.
Shelton’s casting is once more sensational. Mouth ever-agape in an awed smile and eyes alight with a childish enthusiasm, Basin deftly establishes Nathaniel as a gullible fool and perfect foil to his cantankerous boss. Maron, who has perfected his niche as a lovable bastard on GLOW, softens slightly here. He’s still gruff and guarded. But there’s a terrific humor in watching him self-consciously test-run cowboy boots he plied from a conned customer. He wears a sour expression, which suggests he perpetually is catching the whiff of something off, and pairs that with a turquoise belt buckle. Which makes him seem a man who refuses to be comfortable in his own skin. Which makes his interactions with Cynthia and Mary particularly fun, because they are both very comfortable.
With 22 Jump Street and IdiotSitter, Bell has made her name playing characters who are loud, abrasive, and even ruthless. But here, she’s almost sickeningly sweet. The script gives Cynthia a bit of bite by having her face-off early on with Nathaniel during a haggling session. Both of the softer sides of their respective twosomes try to look tough to appease their partners, but they carry all the menace of a basket of kittens. Bell shares an effortless-looking intimacy with Watkins, and proves a chipper foil to the latter’s snarling barbs of humor. Mary is not a woman to be messed with. Watkins, who is a criminally undersung character actress, brings verve to this pig-tailed tourist, who refuses to let a schlubby antique hustler, his dopey sidekick, or a squad of wealthy white supremacists mess with her wife. Watkins’ swagger is edged with silliness, which makes her a stupendous match for Maron’s grimacing shtick. I could have watched the pair of them bicker through gritted teeth for hours.
When it’s based in character, Sword of Trust is stellar. But as it rumbles into a third act more ambitious than Shelton’s other films, things get a bit clunky. The script never feels all that interested in the intrigue or hijinks. So when our bumbling heroes wind up face to face with the local kingpin of Civil War truthers, Sword of Trust loses its path. There are collisions brief, bittersweet, then quickly forgotten. There’s a revelation that’s surprising, but also lingeringly perplexing. Most frustrating, the climax smacks of sitcom structure, desperate to keep the heroes’ circumstances from changing too much. Which if this was a TV show, might work. But as we’re not picking up with this curious crew again next week, I pined for a resolution more profound. Still, it was fun.
Shelton gathered together a terrific ensemble, and it’s a joy to watch them play within her and O’Brien’s offbeat world of conspiracy theories and lovable losers. In the end, Sword of Trust is rich with humor and heart with a sophisticated edge of snark.
Header Image Source: IFC Films