Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Movie Review: Sword of Trust

Sword of Trust *** / *****
Directed by: Lynn Shelton.
Written by: Lynn Shelton and Mike O’Brien.
Starring: Marc Maron (Mel), Jon Bass (Nathaniel), Michaela Watkins (Mary), Jillian Bell (Cynthia), Toby Huss (Hog Jaws), Dan Bakkedahl (Kingpin), Lynn Shelton (Deirdre), Timothy Paul (Zeke), Whitmer Thomas (Jake), Al Elliott (Jimmy), Tilcia Furman (Gabby), Benjamin Keepers (Ben), Robert Longstreet (Truther).
If nothing else, Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust provides definitive proof that Marc Maron is a special actor. The stand-up comedian turned podcast host came to acting later in his career – with his own show, and then Glow. There is something to be said about people who have lived a life before they got to acting – and that Maron has, with his drug addiction, stand-up career, marriages, etc. It informs everything they do. In Sword of Trust, Maron plays Mel – a pawn shop owner in Alabama. Into his shop comes a couple – Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell) – with a sword to sell. They inherited it from Cynthia’s grandfather, who believed that the sword, and the documentation that comes along with it, proves that the South really won the Civil War, and all our history is just a giant conspiracy designed to fool us into thinking the North won. Soon, the three of them fall down a rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories – guided by Mel’s assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) someone who knows that world – and meet some very interesting, very scary (in a comedic way) people who are interested in such “prover” items.
All of the characters in the movie are interesting in one way or another – none more so than Maron’s Mel however. Maron shows his range in this film – and it’s a range that allows him to be both hilarious, and heartbreakingly real – sometimes in back-to-back moments. He’s got a lot of quips and jokes throughout the film – and they’ll make you laugh – but he also has two absolutely beautiful scenes that revolve his relationship with Deirdre (Lynn Shelton, who co-wrote and directed the film). In the first of these scenes, we see Deirdre come into the pawn shop to try and sell some things. It’s clear these two known each other – it’s clear that there is love there, but Mel is also tired of her coming in, trying to sell her junk that he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. She’s a drug addict – but he feels for her, and the way he interacts with her is firm, yet polite. It’s a beautiful little piece of acting. Later, in the back of a panel van that contains the four main characters being driven to an interested party in acquiring the sword, Maron gives a long monologue about his relationship with Deirdre – how they loved each other, how they were both addicts, and how he got clean and she didn’t. It’s heartbreaking really.
In moments like this, Sword of Trust is a genuinely wonderful movie – as good as anything that Shelton has ever done, and probably better than anything since her breakthrough – Humpday. She seems to make her living doing TV work – a lot of TV work – but when he makes her own films, the results are these loosely structured comedic films – films built around their characters, more than their plots, and whose humor comes through them as well. Had she come along in the 1980s or 1990s, she wouldn’t have had to do all this TV work – she could have churned out quite a body of work in these little indies, but alas, the film industry has changed – and these charming indies don’t make what they used to. Shelton has had more than one film basically fall through the cracks – no matter how good they are.
With Sword of Trust however, it’s almost a shame that the film ever leaves the pawn shop. I picture a film like Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) which all takes place in the cigar shop run by Harvey Keitel – where he’s the constant, and interesting characters’ filter throughout the movie. A movie like that, with Maron’s Mel in his pawn shop – and all these people filtering through for various reasons – probably would have been better than what we end up with. As the film progresses, and continues to have to add implausibility on top of implausibility as it twists its narrative about the sword, and these people who believe in this conspiracy theory (and insist you believe in it too) the movie can become strained at times. It’s best when it’s relaxed – when it’s Maron and whoever he’s playing off of riffing. All the performances are quite good – the characters interesting. When the film relaxes – and lets them talk (like when Mary and Cynthia tell how they met, and their future plans), the films works like gangbusters. Hell, when its lets someone like the great Toby Huss go off playing a characters called Hog Jaws (don’t call him Jaws Hog) it can be hilarious. It’s just when forcing them into a narrative that the film loses its way.
Still, it’s always good to see a Lynn Shelton film – because more than anything, she allows her character’s space to breath. It’s in those moments that Sword of Trust can be a truly special film. It’s when the film rushes them through a plot they don’t need when the film loses it way somewhat.

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