Movie Review: Sword of Trust (2019)
Marc Maron is the best part of Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust.” Maybe because his exasperation with people and the times mirrors mine. He’s past the point of caring but not quite. “The fuck is this?” he says at one point, unable to believe idiots believe in the things they do. He spoke for me.
The idiot things people believe in 2019 gets us back to the Philip Roth dilemma: How do you make credible American culture when the culture always outdoes the best efforts of our imaginations? When the culture itself is a satire? Roth complained that no novelist, for example could’ve dreamed up Richard Nixon, and he complained about this ... in 1962. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead a dozen years. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead to Reagan and Rush and W. and Alex Jones. And of course President Donald.
So how do you do it? How do you create an American reality that seems both absurd and credible?
Shelton and co-writer Michael Patrick O’Brien (SNL”) do it by saying there’s a fringe group that believes the South actually won the Civil War.
You think about that for a second and go, “Yeah, that feels about right.” It feels so right that when you get home you go online to check that it’s not actually a thing.
The story is pretty simple. Maron plays Mel, who runs a two-bit pawnshop in a lazy stretch of Birmingham, Ala., with a conspiracy-minded assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass of unfortunately “Baywatch”), helping, or mostly not, by his side.
Meanwhile, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) has just lost her father and assumes she’ll get his house, but, oops, the bank is taking that. The only thing for her is an old Civil War sword, which she and her partner, Mary (Michaela Watkins), try to sell at Mel’s pawnshop.
This particular sword plays heavy in the conspiracy theory that the South actually won the Civil War. The sword was there at the surrender of the North, or something, in 1881, and so suddenly there’s a bunch of loons descending on Mel’s pawnshop.
Just writing that makes me think the movie should’ve been funnier. Maybe with a bigger budget? As is, the loonish descent is just two lousy stickup men, and the guy who played “The Wiz” on that episode of “Seinfeld” (Toby Huss). Here, he’s Hog Jaws, repping an interested buyer.
The movie goes wrong in a couple of ways:
- How much was improv? Parts felt that way, and those parts weren’t funny. Nathaniel’s whole “Flat Earth” society bit was just ... nothing
- I didn’t buy that anyone in it lived in Alabama. Not Maron from Jersey, Not Bass from Texas, not Watkins from NY or Bell from Vegas. It was filmed in Birmingham but I didn’t feel Alabama at all. (Caveat: I’ve never been to Alabama.)
- Hog Jaws says his buyer won’t visit their pawn shop; they have to get in the back of a van, like an unmarked police van, and meet him at his estate. And they go.
One, it’s a horrible negotiating move: You travel all that way, you kinda want to make the deal. More important: He’s nuts. He believes the South won the Civil War. You could die. Who’s taking that risk? These people.
Anyway, it turns out that the buyer, Kingpin (Dan Bakkedahl of “VEEP”) doesn’t believe in alt South history anyway. Hog Jaws does, and when he overhears he pulls a gun on Kingpin. But others get the drop on him and he’s taken to the “Toy Room,” which is a supercreepy name straight out of “Pulp Fiction.” We never see it; thank god. Our heroes get out alive and with $40k.
There’s a subplot, too, about Mel being in love with an addict, played by Shelton. The movie ends on a grace note.
In the end, it feels too improv, too indie. But if you like Maron, go. He’s the show.