Sword of Trust
Friday, Aug. 2, 2 p.m., $8–$10
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
In Sword of Trust, the very funny and surprisingly moving new film from director Lynn Shelton, Marc Maron is Mel, a pawnshop owner in Birmingham, Alabama, who stumbles into a strange moneymaking opportunity. When couple Cynthia and Mary (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) bring in an antique sword, a little Internet research reveals that the artifact has a story. According to an army of dimbulb conspiracy theorists, it’s one of several items that prove the Confederacy actually won the Civil War, and the rubes are willing to pay top dollar for it.
Mel, Cynthia, and Mary decide to join forces with internet-addled pawnshop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) and descend into the weird, potentially violent world of Deep South truthers. Things go sideways, and then sideways again. One of the many joys of this film is that you truly have no idea what’s going to happen next.
That’s on purpose. Shelton is known for her collaborative, largely improvised filmmaking process. For each scene, the actors are given a “scriptment”—part script, part treatment—and encouraged to wing it. This results in an oddly specific, wonderfully organic flow in all of her films. (Her 2011 masterpiece, Your Sister’s Sister, is in my personal all-time top ten.)
Maron ups his game with a charismatic performance that locks in perfectly with Shelton’s directing style. The two have been collaborating for years, on TV episodes and standup specials. Maron’s improvised monologue halfway through the film is one of the best screen performances in recent memory.
Sword of Trust is a seriously funny movie, but it’s also deeply empathetic. The four principal actors build out their characters’ backstories and quirks, and the movie casually brushes against serious themes of addiction, motherhood, child abuse, and quiet desperation. The film has deep sympathy for these marginalized characters. The humor puts the tragedy into high-contrast relief; the tragedy makes the jokes funnier. It works like magic.
Shelton also stitches in a fascinating subtextual thread beneath the laughs. Like a number of recent films—including the new Spider-Man—Sword of Trust deals obliquely with our current post-truth crisis, where facts are dead and everyone can cultivate their own reality. This is most evident in the conspiracy theory business but watch for the quieter moments, too. These talkative characters reveal themselves to one another by telling stories, patching together memories into a narrative of their own lives, as we all do.
“Here’s the problem with believing bullshit. It’ll eventually erode away the real truth,” Mel says. He’s talking about the Civil War fantasists, but could easily be talking about himself, too. What do we do when the bullshit is our own? To bury a question like that in a story like this is evidence of Shelton’s oddball genius. This is one of the best films of the year.
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