Review: 'Sword of Trust'

A Civil War relic of uncertain origin, a deep state conspiracy, a confederacy of dunces
LONG HAUL: In 'Sword of Trust,' a pawn shop owner is sucked into a vast Deep State conspiracy by a confederacy of dunces.

A harmonious blend of mumblecore and screwball, Lynn Shelton's Sword of Trust touches both poles: nowheresville cinema-of-disappointment meets millionaire ex machina. Despite the ambling pace, here is the self-deception of frantic 1940s comedy. Shelton (Humpday, My Sister's Sister) demonstrates a light touch that compliments the shagginess of her methods.

One influence seems to be Pawn Stars, a popular but baffling TV show where people bring their treasures to be priced, knowing in advance they're going to be buffaloed and low-balled in front of the cameras. But like a sword, a movie ought to have a point, and this film's essence is the serious problem of historical misinformation. Let's cite, for example, Jonah Goldberg-style rewriting of history to make Democratic liberals American's villains since the Civil War. If it were possible to reason with revisionists, one could ask if a person who actually owned human beings and kept them in chains would be better described as a liberal or a conservative.

Theories of alternative history have dazzled Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a slack-jawed donkey of an assistant at a Birmingham, Alabama pawn shop. We first see him being urged to "think outside the box" by a streaming video.

His boss Mel (the noted podcaster and comedian Marc Maron) can barely deal with Nathaniel or anything else—especially a too-friendly girl Dierdre (Shelton) coming in to pawn a ring and to read a poem.

Across town, Mary (Michaela Watkins) and her cuddly blonde partner Cynthia (Jillian Bell) are getting ready to accept Cynthia's inheritance, a house where both can live. The bad news is that granddad reverse-mortgaged the place into nothingness. Cynthia's only real inheritance is a priceless Civil War sword... priceless in the sense that no one can agree on its value, despite a long, Alzheimer's-wracked letter describing the blade's history. The ladies try to hock it to Mel, and he passes at first.

But there is a market for it: A group calling themselves the Invictusians need that sword as proof that the South actually won the war, despite the Deep State's campaign to hide the truth. This crispy slice of political humor is served in a warmer wrap of human comedy as Nathaniel, Mel and the two ladies head off on a perilous trip to sell the sword, escorted by a perhaps violent yokel code-named Hog Jaw (Toby Huss).

Mary, who considers herself the brain of the operations, comes up with a legend in the fashion of Diane Keaton in an early Woody Allen, putting wide-eyed, wrist-grabbing sincerity into an improvised fib. The way she tells it, the sword was obtained after General Sheridan or General Sherman lost the Civil War battle of Chickapoo, or was it Chickenfist, back in 1803—she does everything but play "Ashokan Farewell" on the violin. Conclusive evidence: a picture of the Union surrender. ("This is a drawing—basically the photograph of the time. Who would get up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to draw a lie?'" Hog Jaw reasons).

The search for home and seed is also Shelton's topic, and this search is underscored by Maron's Eeyore comedy. The dad-plaids and the bearded bespectacled face give Maron the spirit of George Segal in his 1970s comedies, or maybe Jerry Springer watching unimaginably bad behavior by his guests, leaving the host without even enough strength for an eye roll.

In his shop, Maron's Mel plays the blues a little (Maron did the soundtrack). It's not until the end of the film that the chords and slides on pawned guitars match the Southern landscape. What had been a series of interiors and establishing shots finally goes wider, into affectionate cityscapes of the funk of the South. Sword of Trust is salted with a sense of loneliness, and sorrow for the way the internet is flypaper for the credulous. Built to bring us together, it's just a fount of stubborn disinformation: a place to rally those who deny even the roundness of our good Earth.

Sword of Trust
R; 88 Mins.
3Below Theater & Lounge, San Jose

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