This review was originally published during 2019’s South by Southwest festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
The best scene in Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust takes place in the windowless back of a truck, in which its central quartet is being taken to an undisclosed location by a possible lunatic and established white supremacist. They’re armed with at least one gun and a Civil War–era sword, and they have no idea where they’re going or what will actually happen once they get there. In their anxious boredom they get to talking, and in true Shelton form, the hidden pain and curious little nooks of all four characters are brought up in a gentle, unforced, totally pleasurable manner. We don’t know where this conversation, or the truck it’s taking place in, is going, but for a few minutes of windowless isolation, it has an undeniable pull.
The main issue with Sword of Trust, an ambling comedy of manners and conspiracy theories, is that it’s clear by the end the film doesn’t really know where it’s going, either. The story — about the titular sword, the out-of-town couple and the pawn shop owner it brings together, and the internet conspiracists who covet it — dredges up a lot of spicy stuff. Racism, anti-Semitism, addiction, codependency, and the disorienting effects of a post-truth world are all tossed into Shelton’s low-speed blender, but the film ends before any of it starts to feel like it’s emulsifying.
The story takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, where Cynthia (Jillian Bell) returns with her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) to collect what she thinks is going to be a tidy inheritance from her late grandfather, but ends up being nothing but a dusty old sword. The sword is accompanied by a garbled, semi-incoherent letter explaining its significance as supposed proof of the real outcome of the Civil War — that is, that the Confederacy actually won, but a vast northern conspiracy prevented the truth from ever coming out. Cynthia, alarmed by the revelation of her late grandpappy as a deluded old South-will-rise-again type, takes the sword to a pawn shop owned by Mel (Marc Maron) and soon they, with the help of Mel’s man-child assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass), find themselves down the rabbit hole of an internet conspiracy and a community of white supremacists who are willing to pay top dollar for their so-called prover item.
The film tiptoes around its central ethical dilemma — namely, whether its worth it to take your ideological enemies for all their worth if it means validating their beliefs. But it never really sinks its teeth into it, instead burning time with a strange, repeated comedic conceit in which the would-be sellers must convince the would-be buyers of their belief in the conspiracy in order to win their favor. This feels beside the point — it’s hard to believe that these zealots would allow the beliefs of the sellers to get in the way of acquiring their object of desire. It also leads to some cheap-feeling har-har’s at the racist hicks — Toby Huss’s ringleader is an unsettling, truly original interpretation of the type, but some younger stooges feel like stock gag characters who undermine the actual weight of what they represent.
There’s also a curious side plot involving Mel’s ex Deirdre (played by Shelton), an addict that followed him down to Alabama after the end of their tumultuous tenure as junkies in love in New York City. In the back of the truck, as Mel tells Cynthia and Mary about their history, he muses that he’s spent the last 20 years clean and sober and, essentially, afraid to live again — and that this adventure with the sword and the racists reminds him of the kind of weird shenanigans he used to get up to. The comment doesn’t feel untrue, necessarily, and Maron’s performance, melancholy and lived-in throughout the film, is particularly good in that moment. But I had to scratch my head a bit. Aside from a tense moment implying Mel’s Judaism, the film seems to take it for granted that these four white-passing characters would willingly waltz into the back of a truck driven by such characters just “for the story.” The suggestion that entangling with a toxic ideology could be a means to find one’s self again feels like the height of privilege — which itself is an interesting idea, for sure, but one that Shelton doesn’t seem terribly interested in investigating.
Still, you so believe Maron as a man grieving his chaotic former life, still in love with but tortured by his junkie ex, that it’s easy to forget it has nothing to do with anything else that’s going on. The film ends on a note of redemption between Mel and Deirdre, but after a protracted, shambolic climax in the conspiracist’s compound, it’s the last thing we’re really concerned with. Sword of Trust feints at being an Ideas movie, but really only wants to hang — which is certainly not a crime, but given the subject matter, and These Times, it’s a little disappointing.