' ' Cinema Romantico: Sword of Trust

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sword of Trust

As Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust” opens, Birmingham pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron) is haggling with a customer who wants to offload a guitar and pair of cowboy boots. Finally, they strike a deal, a couple hundred bucks, though after Mel forks over the cash, the customer wonders if he’s being swindled. Mel says nah, though soon after, once the customer leaves, we see Mel in those very cowboy boots, suggesting dubious ethics. It puts Mel’s words under the microscope, emblemizing “Sword of Trust” itself, which questions the legitimacy of words throughout, an idea fused with the current conspiracy theory fad, brought home in the film’s driving plot point, a Civil War sword – Union side – that a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), bring to the pawn shop to gauge its worth, explaining that based upon a semi-coherent letter left by Cynthia’s grandfather, this weapon doubles as proof the South won.

Shelton is a veteran of Mumblecore, that unfortunately-monikered, oft-revelatory, usually improvisational indie genre that gave rise to Greta Gerwig, amongst others, and of which Richard Brody once wrote how its directors “don’t impose performances on actors but develop them from the actors themselves.” That sentiment is implicit in Maron, his character’s ability to read people in several seconds flat not inconspicuously born of Maron as a real-life podcast interviewer extraordinaire. In a scene where Cynthia and Mary debate their potential as mothers, Mel astutely breaks down each of their personalities, and when a pair of cliched rednecks show up at this shop looking for a sword, speaking in code by asking if he’s from – ahem – “the east coast”, Maron holds off on the punchline until the last moment, which not only makes it funnier but suggests how he had them sized up from the get-go.

That sequence, though, also goes to show just how frequently “Sword of Trust” diffuses its otherwise inherent tension, where even the punctuating moment of a gun being drawn comes with a punchline. Guns, in fact, are sprinkled throughout, playing off the sword as more modern artillery, though whether this is supposed to poke fun at America’s gun obsession or act as a comical acceptance of this fact is never quite clear. “Sword of Trust”, though, is much clearer in its viewpoint of conspiracy theories and their peddlers – dim, very dim.

Look no further than Mel’s assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), introduced watching a Lone Man Telling Truth Internet video, Bass’s nigh-omnipresent slack-jawed expression comically connoting his character’s dimness. As Mel haggles with Cynthia and Mary, in fact, Shelton keeps Nathaniel out of the shot, until the first mention of a conspiracy theory at which point, as if hearing a dog whistle, he casually slips into the shot, his interest now piqued. And while trying to peddle the sword to a gaggle of conspiracy minded southerners, Shelton splits the quartet off into groups so that as Mel and Mary are inside trying to feign The South Shall Rise belief, outside Nathaniel pitches Cynthia on the earth being flat (“You ever drive out near Kansas City?”), essentially equating one as with the other.

What’s more, by framing the entire conspiracy around a nonsensical letter, in which Cynthia’s grandfather continually mistakes Phil Sheridan for William Sherman, and vice-versa, and the details of the battle in question make little sense, Mary and Cynthia and Mel, one by one and in different situations, try and render this yarn believable, comically evincing the idea of a conspiracy theorist’s babble, changing the story as is necessary to make the pieces fit, which is essentially what’s happening with Nathaniel as he tries to sell his flat earther burble. In this light, if the payoff to the sale of the sword feels perfunctory, that’s also the point, a whole belief system going up in a puff of smoke.

No, the movie’s unexpected truth emerges on the road to sell the sword, the quartet piling into the back of a truck and winding up in a variation of the Stuck In A Elevator scene, as the characters confess their respective truths, most notably Mel. If he probes Mary and Cynthia like a therapist, the questions are gradually turned around on him, as he talks about an ex-girlfriend, who we are introduced to in an earlier scene in his pawn shop, and what she means, the simple cuts between the earnest smile of Cynthia and the despite himself admissions of Mel laying bare honesty’s detox. The truth, you realize, isn’t out there; it’s [points at chest] in here.

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