Sword of Trust (2019; Lynn Shelton)
By Daniel Barnes
Opens on Friday, July 19, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Sword of Trust is the ninth feature from Ohio-born, Seattle-raised filmmaker Lynn Shelton. However, it’s only my second experience with Shelton’s work, following her “pleasantly forgettable” 2014 offering Laggies. Even without context, though, anyone could guess that Shelton comes from the Mumblecore school of not giving a shit about framing shots or shaping scenes or writing dialogue. Every scene in Sword of Trust values laid-back immediacy and quirky babble over any of the essential elements of cinema.
“General Lack of Focus”
Marc Maron stars as Mel, the laid-back owner of an Alabama pawnshop, while Jon Bass (Baywatch) plays his conspiracy-obsessed assistant. After a series of clumsily assembled expository scenes, lovers Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell) come into Mel’s store with a Civil War sword and an unbelievable story.
When Cynthia’s grandfather passed away, the government got the house, but Cynthia got his prized possession: a Union Army sword. A so-called “prover item” complete with records of “authenticity,” the sword supposedly proves that the South won the Civil War. The sword also came with a dementia-tinged letter from Cynthia’s grandfather outlining the weapon’s indecipherable origin story.
Mel scoffs at first, but he quickly realizes that there is a booming market for the sword among racist conspiracy theorists. Eventually, Mel partners with Cynthia and Mary to sell the sword, dodging knife-wielding rednecks and a sword inspector named Hog Jaws along the way.
“Dawdles Right Off the Rails”
Sword of Trust gets by on pure affability and ease-of-watch for a while, but the uneven pace and general lack of focus wear thin fast. Naturally, it builds to Mel uncharacteristically baring his soul in the form of a Maron-esque ramble about his self-destructive past. Barely five minutes later, the film lurches into a slapstick dancing-at-gunpoint sequence. There’s never any sense of danger, but rarely any sense of conviction either.
One scene dawdles into the next, and the film finally dawdles off the rails in the second half. Shelton resolves the central story in an abrupt and thoroughly nonsensical manner, but then she dawdles another 10 minutes before dawdling off to a pointless end.
By that point, the film becomes almost unbearable, just a lot of shapeless bickering cut with sudden fits of sincerity. Shelton does more TV work these days (including several collaborations with Maron), and Sword of Trust feels more sized to that medium.