Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film on Friday, July 12.
One hour into a madcap attempt to sell a Civil War-era sword to deranged conspiracy theorists in “Sword of Trust,” Marc Maron sits down and delivers one of the best monologues of his career. As the nasally inquisitor on his “WTF” podcast, Maron excels at unleashing amusing and neurotic bursts of self-deprecation and commentary, while his supporting role on “Glow” and now-defunct IFC show provide a visual extension of that talent. But director Lynn Shelton’s rambling comedy forces Maron, in one pivotal scene, to elevate that persona into a full-fledged character defined as much by his tragic past as his comic asides.
A decade after solidifying her improv-heavy approach with “Humpday,” Shelton has delivered another endearing misadventure about bored, wistful people compelled to gamble on a reckless proposition. The movie’s lightweight plot yields a disposable comedy with a lot on its mind, but its modest ambition is just enough to let Maron push his onscreen appeal in a new direction.
However, like Shelton’s best movies, “Sword of Trust” operates as a small-scale ensemble piece owing just as much to the rest of its cast. Essentially a four-hander, the story revolves around Birmingham couple Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit a grimy sword from the Confederate army left behind by Cynthia’s deceased grandfather. His letter ties the object to a century-plus shadow organization convinced that the South won the war, and the bemused pair decide to take the object to a pawn shop.
There’s where they find Mel (Maron), a dyspeptic manager unconvinced by the backstory but willing to offer a measly $400 — until a bit of internet research with his dopey assistant Nathaniel (a very funny slacker type played by Jon Bass) uncovers a whole network of racist lunatics willing to pay outrageous prices for that very object. After some petty arguments and clumsy negotiations, Mel agrees to split the loot with his reticent clients, yielding an unwieldy team-up as they prepare to confront a bizarre array of Southern caricatures.
Before it pivots into loopy comic terrain, “Sword of Trust” takes its time developing Mel’s understated routine. The first act of “Sword of Trust” unfolds with the same breezy window into small-business workplace anxieties that made Andrew Bujalski’s “Support the Girls” such an absorbing character study. Shelton introduces Cynthia and Mary with a similar degree of sophistication: Bell’s a hilarious goofball riddled with self-doubt, which Watkins compliments with Mary’s tough attitude and bouts of overconfidence.
The movie doesn’t overplay the notion that a gay couple in the South requires much scrutiny, aside from one scene in which the group encounters a redneck caricature and determines that they have to literally play it straight. In another moment, they mistake Mel and Nathaniel for a couple, which leads the alpha male co-workers to a cringe-worthy exchange about degrees of attractiveness that harkens back to the heterosexual jitteriness of “Humpday.”
But Shelton, who spent the past several years honing her craft in television, seems reticent to overextend the movie’s thematic ambition. As the premise for “Sword of Trust” comes together, the story sags into a routine of improvisatory showdowns that the actors carry with an amiable sense of play, and a lot of its best material suggests an inspired four-part standup routine.
Bell and Watkins excel at a recurring gag in which they attempt to explain the Confederate conspiracy theory to straight-faced true believers, while Maron gapes at them in disbelief; elsewhere, his running commentary on the absurdity of their situation grounds the zany plot in hilarious observations. “This is how people die!” he spouts, as the group steps inside the back of a truck driven by the potential buyer’s demented minion, only to confess moments later that he has developed a morbid curiosity about confronting the machinery of bigotry up close: “We’re inside its brain!”
But back to that monologue. For all the cynicism about the lackadaisical nature of improvisatory filmmaking, Shelton and her peers have honed an approach that enables actors to complicate loose material through their own distinct personalities. (The filmmaker herself appears in one pivotal scene, playing a layered character with rich backstory only explained with subtle hints, as if to prove her commitment to this approach.) When Mel finally explains the downbeat saga that transformed him from idealistic New Yorker to dyspeptic salesman, the camera lingers on his face for minutes on end, and Maron owns every moment of it.
Nothing in the rest of the movie can match it. “Sword of Trust” ambles into a flimsy third-act confrontation that resolves the scenario with a half-baked shrug. Yet even as the narrative fizzles, the movie remains an appealing assemblage of timely themes — the black hole of the internet, truth-versus-fiction debates, covert hate groups crawling out of the woodwork — in tandem with its cartoonish twists. From the arrival of two dopey anti-Semitic thugs wielding a screwdriver, to recurring reminders that pretty much everyone in the South is packing heat, “Sword of Trust” doesn’t lack for effective punchlines about this country’s wilder extremes. Laced together with Maron’s own laid-back electric guitar score, the movie is a breezy access point for assessing white America’s disbelief at the country’s extremists taking charge. That’s no joke, but the most revealing aspect of “Sword of Trust” is that its ridiculous circumstances are almost crazy enough to be true.
“Sword of Trust” premiered in the Narrative Spotlight section at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.