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Sword of Trust

I was going to see the big new release this weekend, but the timing didn’t work out and every showtime near me was sold out. Luckily, my theater was also showing a lesser-known movie at the same time that I was able to enjoy instead.

Have you ever had a moment like that? No? Then maybe you should visit your local arthouses more often.

Sword of Trust opens in a pawn shop somewhere in Birmingham, Alabama. The store is run by Mel (Marc Maron, who also contributed to the charming guitar-driven score), a washed-up musician still trying to move on from his junkie ex-girlfriend (Deirdre, played by writer/director Lynn Shelton). He’s assisted by Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a brain-dead lump of a man who typically spends most of his time watching YouTube videos about conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, etc. Mel is trying to run an honest business, but of course it’s hard enough running a flea market, even without an incompetent employee and an ex-girlfriend always coming around for another loan she can’t pay off.

Enter Cynthia and her life partner, Mary (respectively played by Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins). Cynthia’s grandfather finally passed away at 90-some-odd years old, and all that he could leave her is a Civil War-era sword. A Union sword, in fact, which would be strange enough in Alabama. And with the sword, Cynthia’s grandfather included a rambling and incoherent story about a huge Civil War battle absent from the history books, ending with a Union general surrendering this very sword to the Confederate side.

In summary, this sword is proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. Yes, you read that right.

Because you are (hopefully) a sane and rational person, you might be thinking that premise is asinine at best and outrageously racist at worst. There’s no way you could possibly believe it, and rightfully so, but that’s not the point. The point is that there are so many out there who not only believe it to be true, but desperately need it to be true. I’m talking about all the racist Confederate knuckle-draggers scraping for anything that could possibly vindicate the venerated “war heroes” in their family tree, and would pay through the nose for any scrap of evidence that might possibly convince others that this fairy tale really happened.

So our lesbian couple go to our pawn shop keepers and decide “Hey, why not play these assholes for all the money they’re worth and get rid of the sword in the bargain?” Hilarity ensues. Especially the part where these delusional gun-toting rednecks turn out to be the violent type and this whole deal may very well end up with somebody dead.

While I’m personally more inclined to take aim at the “Heritage Not Hate” crowd (It’s 2019 and I make no apologies for that), the movie takes a much wider view, with commentary that’s more about the “free thinkers” who “question everything” and “think outside the box”, refusing to accept what they’ve merely been told. And sure, there’s a lot of room for speculation and difference of opinion. One character brings up the existence of ghosts, for example — we don’t really know anything about the afterlife, and there’s certainly room for debate with regards to something that cannot be definitively proven or disproven.

That’s not the same thing as arguing that the Earth is flat. Or thinking that one senile old man’s delirious rambling is enough to change anything about one of the most thoroughly researched and well-documented wars in our nation’s history. Thinking “outside the box” doesn’t mean believing in shit that is demonstrably untrue. It certainly doesn’t mean choosing a conclusion ahead of time and then cherry-picking or outright manufacturing “proof” to justify that conclusion — hell, that’s the exact opposite of rational thought!

And yet this outrageous anti-logic continues to spread, lowering the bar for what constitutes civil and rational behavior while chipping away at the most basic concept of what is objectively true. And for what? For a few cheap, ironic, mindless chuckles? So smug assholes can feel special for being contrary?

(Side note: Or maybe these YouTube content creators are simply moving in the direction of whatever will bring them Likes and Subscribes so their videos will keep generating clicks and making money. These are the times we’re living in.)

Well, in the case of our Confederate truthers, that answer is obvious: Because for better or worse, this is their heritage. Not all descendants of Confederates are racists, but every single one of them has to make their peace with the legacy left to them by their racist ancestors. Cynthia herself is a fine example: Her grandfather may have been a racist Confederate numskull, but she still remembers him fondly as a good man who took loving care of her. She makes an effort to square that circle, as opposed to so many others in this picture who would rather rewrite history so their ancestors were the real heroes all along.

Oh, and lest we forget, some of these same assholes would literally fight to the death over this; threatening, intimidating, assaulting, or even outright murdering anyone who stands in their way. How’s that for rational discourse?

This film works on multiple levels as a highly relevant satire. It certainly helps that the cast is on fire, with strong interplay between our four leads. Even among the bit players — including Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas, Al Elliott, and of course Lynn Shelton herself — there’s not a single dud in the bunch. The comedy is wickedly effective and all of the characters are compelling. Even the Confederate truthers aren’t quite the cartoon stereotypes they might have been under another director.

That said, this is still a Lynn Shelton picture.

For those who’ve never seen her other works (Humpday, Laggies, the criminally underrated Your Sister’s Sister, etc.), Shelton’s movies are deliberately very loose. She has a semi-improvised style, in which the scenes are pretty much entirely made up on the fly. Thus her movies are loaded with what I’ve come to call “machine-gun humor”, i.e. spraying a million jokes a minute in every direction and hoping at least a few of them hit the mark.

While many higher-profile filmmakers have also made careers out of this style of comedy (Seth Rogen, Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, etc.), it always feels lazy and stupid, like the filmmakers did this because they didn’t want to put the time or money into writing a script. With Lynn Shelton’s pictures, it feels like the exact opposite. Shelton’s movies feel more like devised theatre, in which the actors and writer/director are collaborating on a script in real time before our eyes.

It certainly helps that Shelton has a preternatural knack for editing out all but the most prime slices of comedy, curating the jokes and smoothing the cuts like her fellow “machine-gun” filmmakers only wish they could. To wit: It speaks volumes and makes a huge difference that Shelton’s movies are typically around 90 minutes each, while Paul Feig’s movies are closer to two hours each. Watching the films of both directors, it’s obvious what a difference it makes to have 30 minutes of less bloat.

That said, the bloat is still absolutely there. In the third act, it’s especially obvious where scenes are extended long past the point of being funny or relevant, just to draw out the runtime. This becomes especially obvious when the scenes have pathetically easy and convenient resolutions that could have and probably should have been brought in earlier, thus the stakes and tension are diminished in the bargain!

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Sword of Trust. I have to give major points for such a bold and deeply incisive premise. There’s a lot of great satire here, delivered with brains, heart, and a fair share of great laughs. Of course it helps that the cast is rock-solid and a joy to watch. Even so, while the pacing was wonderful on the whole, that only made the awkward and overlong scenes look all the more stale.

I have a difficult time justifying the time and trouble to track down and see such a tiny indie movie in peak blockbuster season, especially given the scant (and yet still bloated) runtime. But when this one hits streaming, you should absolutely check it out.

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