A glass three-fifths full, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s affable comedy “Sword of Trust” gets by on the improvisational wiles of its cast.
For those looking for it, there’s also a glimmer or two of social observation regarding the way our country’s current divide zigzags back inevitably to the Civil War, how that turned out, who wants what to rise again and who’d prefer to do the best they can with the nation as a shaky, fractious whole.
It’s a low-key caper, set largely in a pawnshop in Birmingham, Alabama. Former junkie Mel (played by Marc Maron) runs the place, assisted by Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a sweet kid who has to be reminded to provide any actual assistance.
Meanwhile, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) has returned to Birmingham with her partner, Mary (Michaela Watkins), to claim what she thinks will be a handy inheritance from her late grandfather, a Civil War buff and probable white supremacist. Surprise! The bank owns the house, and there’s no inheritance beyond a single artifact: a sword, complete with certificates of authentication that may or may not be authentic.
A letter from Cynthia’s grandfather explains the historical significance of the sword. It’s surviving proof of the secret history of the Confederacy winning the war, only to have the Union devise a politically weaselly way to keep that a secret. The sword is a “prover item.” When Cynthia and Mary sell it to Mel, he turns right around and looks for the highest bidder online. “Sword of Trust” becomes a tale of how a gaggle of outsiders (and implicit liberals, mostly) squares off against a variously sinister and inept far-right cabal of Civil War conspiracy theorists.
Director and Seattle native Shelton taps a bit of plot in gradual motion and allows her ensemble to explore various scenarios within the structure. Maron is MVP here: a wry skeptic, responding to the developments naturally and convincingly. What is a guy like Mel, a onetime would-be New York bohemian, doing in Birmingham, anyway? An early appearance from Mel’s codependent former lover (played well by Shelton) suggests a long, fraught history. In the movie’s most interesting sequence — set in the back of a van carrying Mel, Nathaniel and Cynthia to an undisclosed location — Mel opens up and reveals details of that history. The scene’s good enough to make the ensuing caper reversals somewhat routine by comparison.
The film neither unites nor divides; it shambles, scoring a few points, mostly because of Maron’s rumpled charisma and Watkins’ oddball, push-pull timing.
The limitation of a film such as “Sword of Trust” is simple: The actors come up with some lovely improvs, but they’re in the service of narrative contrivances that can feel pretty lazy.
Shelton’s earlier work includes a lot with Maron and it shows. She knows his value. Despite his formidable verbal skills — his “WTF” podcast remains a titan of the form — he’s just as interesting watching someone else talk, and formulating a response nonverbally. He’s a genuinely inventive actor, in other words, as are his “Sword of Trust” cohorts. The movie itself struggles to match their inventiveness, but it has its payoffs, often under the breath, here and gone before you know it.
★★½ “Sword of Trust,” with Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins. 89 minutes. Directed by Lynn Shelton, from a screenplay by Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien. Rated R for language throughout. Opens July 26 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.