Low-key independent character pieces are director Lynn Shelton’s specialty. With films such as “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely,” “Laggies,” and the undervalued “Outside In,” Shelton creates projects that seem gimmicky on a surface level and infuses them with deeply personal meditations on the human condition. Her uniquely easygoing writing style has proven Shelton to be one of the most interesting writer-directors in film today.
A great cast leads the way as we meet Mel (Marc Maron) who owns and operates an Alabama pawn shop. His only employee is Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a man-child who immerses himself in YouTube videos that are beginning to shape his outlook on the world.
Into Mel’s shop and life walks Cynthia (a very funny Jillian Bell) and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins). Confused and angered that her recently deceased grandfather, of whom she spoke so fondly, only left her a Civil War-era sword and a rambling letter explaining how it is a key relic from the “South’s true victory over the North,” the two women set out to make some fast and much-needed cash. After making too low an offer, as he doesn’t believe the sword is authentic, online research leads Mel to believe there is a small fortune to be made with crackpot Civil War revisionists.
Reluctantly, Mel and Nathaniel team up with Cynthia and Mary and make contact with someone called “Kingpin” (an always-funny Dan Bakkedahl), who offers significant compensation for the sword. Kingpin sends a man called “Hog Jaws” (Toby Huss) to check it all out and bring the foursome to a secret location to complete the deal.
Shelton uses her time wisely and does not hurry. Her patient style allows us take in the ambience of Mel’s pawn shop. We have time to get to know Mel and his relationship with Nathaniel, his work, and to Deidre (played by Lynn Shelton) a woman from his past that affects the way Mel lives his own life to this very moment.
Marc Maron is simply excellent in the role of Mel. He underplays the character nicely which complements Shelton’s writing style. Maron navigates the character with ease giving us many organic moments of humor but deepens the emotional effect in a strikingly-honest dialogue about his drug-fueled past that gets to the heart of both the actor’s own personal struggles in his younger days and Mel’s conflicting issues regarding love and devotion. It is wonderful work from an ever-growing actor.
It should also be noted that Maron (a Rock and Blues music aficionado) wrote the Bluesy guitar-tinged score!
The whole cast works very well together and they are given many moments to creatively “dig in” and give us something real in a film with a plot that may ring a bit hokey from time to time.
However, it is Shelton’s sly use of the film’s silly plot to assert her film as a pointed look at the gullibility of those who are swayed by what they see and hear on the Internet. The director shows (albeit in a more comical manner) how dangerous hate groups are born from online rumor, hearsay and plain lies. Be they “flat earthers,” white supremacist groups, or the endless uninformed that have accepted the “alternative thinking” that is causing turmoil in the United States and the world entire, Shelton has something potent to say.
Forget the final fifteen minutes where too much goofy comedy overtakes the film, “Sword of Trust” is a small film that gives us a glimpse of where we are as a country. But more than that, Lynn Shelton’s screenplay (co-written by Michael Patrick O’Brien and partially improvised by the cast) takes great care in creating honest and relatable people who move us. Tonally uneven as a whole from time to time, it is in these character-rich moments where Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust” becomes one of the most endearing films of the year.