MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Lynn Shelton’s SWORD OF TRUST
Opportunity makes strange — but ultimately well-suited — bedfellows in Lynn Shelton’s quirky dramedy Sword of Trust. Centered on an antique weapon that may (or may not) have played an unexpectedly important role in American history, it digs into the denial and hate that are tied into so much of the divisiveness that’s currently plaguing our country. All with an absurdist tone, naturally.
When Cynthia’s (Jillian Bell) grandfather passes away, she and her wife, Mary (Michaela Watkins), come to Alabama expecting more than the legacy it turns out he’s left her: an old sword and a rambling, ranting letter that claims the blade is proof that the South actually won the Civil War. They take it to local pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron), who’s initially lowballs them with an offer they can easily refuse.
But then Mel and his assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), discover that there’s a high-paying market for artifacts that play into “truther” conspiracy theories about the War Between the States. Before you can say “dark web,” Mel and Nathaniel and Cynthia and Mary find themselves joining forces and heading off to meet with a potential buyer for the sword. Along the way, they share confidences and establish unexpected bonds. But can they really trust each other?
With unexpected twists and eccentric characters, the film answers that question in ways that are both funny and thought-provoking (as well as reminiscent of other darkly wacky ensemble movies like Flirting with Disaster). Shelton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike O’Brien, has crafted an insightful story that sheds light on the things that we let come between us and our fellow Americans. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sheila Roberts In a regressive era deeply mired in conspiracy theories, revisionist history, fake news and questionable truths, esteemed filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s hilarious and beautifully crafted Sword of Trust is a welcome pleasure. This provocative ensemble comedy is anchored by an excellent cast, inspired writing, quirky yet accessible characters in complex interpersonal relationships, and a zany premise that mocks our current political and cultural divide. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson Lynn Shelton’s latest presents the tiniest slice of modern American life wrapped up in a bow of financial desperation, revisionist history, and Internet paranoia. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that none of its oddball denizens seem to realize that they are living in, at best, a dysfunctional society, and, at worst, a dystopian one. Instead they just cheerfully pursue their very small, often slightly warped ambitions as if they were the most normal things imaginable. It’s as terrifying as it is slyly hilarious.
Susan Wloszczyna: Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust might be a mumblecore boondoggle whose oddly relevant narrative for our divisive times gets unraveled when it devolves into a wacky road trip during its conclusion. But luckily, the filmmaker puts her trust in her actors, especially WTF podcast star and Glow co-star Marc Maron as a sarcastic pawnshop owner in Birmingham, Ala., and gives them enough improv rope to allow them to feel like real people – some of whom we would be glad to know. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale There are few directors who have an affinity for, and are good at telling stories based almost entirely on character interaction. With the new release Sword of Trust, Lynn Shelton proves once again she is one of them. As both co-writer and director, Shelton shot the film in 12 days, allowing the ensemble to freely improvise, using the narrative’s structure, characters, and backstories as anchors. Based on the resulting film, they clearly trusted her and each other immensely. The story is of a pawn broker (Marc Maron) and his ineffectual employee (Jon Bass) who enter into an alliance with couple Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell) in selling a sword with a sketchy provenance that, if proved true, would alter what we know as the history of the United States. Sword of Trust arrives in timely fashion, in that it speaks to the fact that people can, and often will believe anything. What makes the film so entertaining, though, is the characters, and how their interactions range from hilarious to heartbreaking, sometimes turning on a dime. Filmmaker Shelton gets another perspective by also being a member of the acting ensemble, playing the rarely seen, but important character Dierdre. It’s likely that being both the creator and the creation, as it were, enabled Shelton to hook even more deeply into these characters’ journeys. She keeps the story moving forward just enough to keep us connected to its outcome. Audiences will find Sword of Trust to be a quirky delight.
Pam Grady: Marc Maron, playing a pawnbroker convinced he is onto a big score, in heads an altogether knockout cast Lynn Shelton’s engaging low-key comedy. The shaggy dog story involving a Civil War sword purported to prove that the Confederacy won the Civil War is inconsequential, but that lack of weight isn’t a drawback. Instead, the barely there plot allows plenty of room for the actors to create sharply defined characters spun from the absurd situation and from the tales they tell each other of their everyday lives. Setting her fable in Birmingham, AL, Shelton captures the shabby ambience of working-class existence, as viewed through the plate-glass window of Maron’s pawnshop. Jon Bass as the pawnbroker’s sweet-natured, lazy, and conspiracy-obsessed assistant is a standout in support, adding an inspired note of comic lunacy.
Loren King If you are a fan of Lynn Shelton’s reliably entertaining, indie movies, you owe it to yourself to see Sword of Trust. As usual, the director/co-writer has delivered a smart, fresh, low budget film that allows a terrific ensemble of actors to play fast and loose with oddball characters. As solid as all the players are, it’s Marc Maron who is the scene-stealer here, bringing humor and poignancy to Mel, the weary, middle-aged owner of a pawn shop in the deep south. Bored with his life and still pained over the breakup with his needy, drug addled girlfriend (played by Shelton herself), he seizes the chance for a big score when a couple, Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell), come in with a Civil War-era sword. They discover via the internet that there exists a bitter little world of rednecks who believe the South actually won the Civil War and are willing to pay big bucks for artifacts that supposedly prove it (such artifacts are called “provers.”) Yes, the movie is a gentle send-up of “alternative facts” and internet conspiracies— Ralph’s nice-guy assistant (Jonathan Bass) is a flat-earther. But mostly it’s the chance for some great improv comic actors to have fun. The ending isn’t entirely satisfying, but Sword of Trust delivers enough sharp humor and memorable characters to more than make up for it.
Jennifer Merin Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a thoroughly amusing and compellingly sarcastic send up of current politics and how citizens are trying to get by. If there were such a genre as Cinema of the Absurd, Sword of Trust would nicely slice its way into that category. The story and characters are the uniquely quirky inventions of Shelton and co-scripter Mike O’Brien, the dialog is the product of brilliant improvisation by the superb ensemble. When cash-strapped Cynthia and Mary show up to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from her deceased grandfather, they discover that the only item bequeathed to her is an antique sword that was believed by her addled grandfather to be proof that the South won the Civil War. Yes, that’s the plot premise that leads the protagonists into a greed-fueled adventure that ignites pertinent questions about groups that proliferate hate, conspiracy theories, truth and accuracy in media and the impact of media on popular thought. The circumstances ans characters bear no resemblance to reality, and yet represent it remarkably well in a singularly twisted, sardonic and provocative way. Sword of Trust is a thoroughly entertaining, beautifully-crafted film helmed by a formidable female filmmaker.
Nell Minow: Poised between Christopher Guest and Mike Leigh, Lynn Shelton lets talented performers develop their characters, and it grounds the heightened premise to keep us in their side. In this film, Shelton herself contributes some of the most compelling moments of the film with her performance as a woman we cannot help rooting for despite her clear history of damaging herself and others.
Marina Antunes Although Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust doesn’t offer a whole lot of laugh-out-loud moments, her latest comedy does deliver a steady stream of chuckles with some beautifully poignant moments in a story that brings together an unlikely group of individuals in an even more unlikely scenario. The joy of Sword of Trust comes from the personal moments that emerge from these characters, particularly Marc Maron who provides not one but two powerful scenes of levity and vulnerability, both around his relationship with Deirdre (played by Shelton). While it’s a bit corny in places, Sword of Trust has a comfortable lived-in feel, like we’ve known these characters forever, and delivers a fun story with a whole lot of heart.
Nikki Baughan: Filmmaker Lynn Shelton (Humpday) makes a welcome return to the big screen after time spent directing episodes of TV shows like Fresh Off The Boat and GLOW, and brings with her that same innate sense of cultural and situational comedy that have imbued her previous work. Making the most of her exceptional cast, who are largely improving around a script written by Shelton and Mike O’Brien, this drama about a group of stranger all looking to profit from a valuable civil war artifact is easy, breezy entertainment.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Writer-director Lynn Shelton’s latest dramedy Sword of Trust is, like most of her work, an exploration of off-beat characters more than plot. A quartet of veteran comedic actors — Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell, and Jon Bass – star in this timely and thought-provoking story. Maron gives a memorable performance as Mel, a pawnshop owner in Birmingham, Alabama who meets an engaged couple (Bell and Watkins) trying to sell a Union Army sword they claim could prove that the South actually won the Civil War. Soon, Mel discovers there are quite a few white supremacists who believe the North had surrendered and are willing to pay top dollar for the “proof.” Watkins is fabulous as always as the acerbic Mary, while Bell gives a Kathryn Hahn vibe as the earnest inheritor of her late grandpappy’s sword. A quiet but charming – and at times, both surprisingly touching and laugh-aloud funny – entry in Shelton’s indie filmography.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Sword of Trust seems like it will debunk the mindset of conspiracy theorists, but it ends up offering audiences sympathetic portrayals of a wide array of characters who escape stereotyping because of Lynn Shelton’s basic good will toward ordinary people and their individual quirks. The film lacks the depth of her brilliant 2017 film Outside In, but it has a lot of gentle humor and a few surprises that audiences should enjoy.
Cate Marquis Lynn Shelton’s oddball comedy Sword of Trust brings together two pairs of strangers in dusty little Alabama town hoping to sell a Civil War era sword for some big bucks. This quirky, low-key comedy has a tall-tale plot but surprisingly well-drawn, memorable characters and also an unexpected commentary on contemporary life and out assumptions about people. The owner of a faded storefront pawnshop, Mel (Marc Maron), a transplant from New Mexico by way of New York, and his dimwitted but sweet assistant Nathaniel (Jonathan Bass), who prefers watching conspiracy-theory videos to working, team up with a lesbian couple new in town, Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell), trying to sell Cynthia’s grandpa’s Civil War-era sword. Cynthia had been expecting to inherit Grandpa’s house but instead got the old sword. The family heirloom comes with a “letter of authenticity” and a rambling letter claiming it proves the South actually won the Civil War but it was covered up. Turns out, there are others conspiracy-theorists who believe the same thing, and they are eager to get their hands on this hot item. Shelton and the cast take this goofy premise and, using improv-based comedy, turn it into a surprisingly clever, funny story, filled with unique characters that challenge our assumptions, while also having something to say about this modern life.
Title: Sword of Trust
Directors: Lynn Shelton
Principal Cast: Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jonthan Bass
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Running Time: 88 minutes
Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Mike O’Brien
Distribution Company: IFC Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
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Edited by Jennifer Merin