The Scam Is Mightier Than the Sword
2019 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Lynne Shelton / Opened in select cities on July 19, 2019; locally on Aug. 2, 2019by:
Not too long ago, before the opinions of YouTubers and Redditors were treated like facts from trusted experts, a film that opened with an online conspiracy theorist ranting about the Earth being hollow would have gotten a few chuckles just for the sheer absurdity of the scenario. How could anyone believe this drivel? In 2019, a movie that opens this way earns laughs for being topical. That’s the case with Sword of Trust: A nameless video blogger (played by co-writer Mike O’Brien) goes on and on about how “we’re living our lives as programmed robots” that never question the way the world works. Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a pawnshop employee whose head might be as hollow as this delusional version of Earth, listens intently. The scene makes for an effective juxtaposition — the past, manifested through the relics that line the walls of the store, and the present, represented by this millennial glued to his connected devices. This theme permeates Sword of Trust: By looking to the past, it’s possible to change the future. Noble as this notion may be, the film’s frequently loose and improvisational nature prevents its message from hitting as hard as it could have.
Mel (Marc Maron), the no-nonsense owner of an Alabama pawnshop, and Nathaniel, his sole employee, seem to spend most days going through the same old motions. Mel deals with customers and makes them (less than fair) offers, while Nathaniel sits off to the side and watches videos on his iPad. Customers are often in dire straits when they come to Mel — they’re selling family heirlooms or prized possessions because they need cash, not because they need a good deal. He treats his ex-girlfriend with even greater mercenary contempt: Deirdre (played by the film’s co-writer and director, Lynn Shelton) comes to him looking to pawn a ring, but he just sends her off empty-handed. Mel does the same thing to Mary (Michela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell), a couple looking to get a good deal on Cynthia’s grandfather’s sword from the Civil War. He offers them several hundred bucks. They spin a yarn about the sword being proof that the Confederates won the Civil War as a rebuttal, but Mel doesn’t budge.
Although pleasant enough up to this point, Sword of Trust takes an interesting turn here: After the couple leaves, Mel and Nathaniel discover that there’s a lot of money to be made in the world of Civil War truthers. After a quick Internet search, the two uncover a crudely edited video littered with Confederate flags and Southern imagery that promises to pay tens of thousands of dollars for items that support their fallacious claim about the South’s alleged victory in 1865. Looking to make bank, Mel and Nathaniel agree to pay two or three times their initial offer to get their hands on Cynthia’s sword and parlay their investment into a hefty profit via the wrongheaded racists in the video. When the couple returns, Mel tries and fails to scam them — Cynthia and Mary demand to split the profits 50/50 (or 25/25/25/25, technically). The foursome call the number from the video and meet with one of their appraisers, a man aptly named Hog Jaws (Toby Huss). They then warily clamber into the back of a moving truck to go meet with “the boss” (Dan Bakkedahl).
The cast is composed of familiar faces: Bell has been a rising star in the comedy world ever since landing a supporting role on Comedy Central’s scripted series Workaholics (2011-2017) and playing minor roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014), and Watkins has been a part of David Wayne’s regular rotation since Wanderlust (2012). However, standup comedian-turned-podcasting royalty Marc Maron is the obvious marquee star. That being said, it isn’t until Sword of Trust’s midpoint that Maron really gets to show off. Seated in the back of Hog Jaws’ truck, Maron’s character opens up to the other three about his relationship with Deirdre and their struggle with drugs, a saga that eventually led to him getting clean and leaving her for his own good. It doesn’t really matter whether O’Brien and Shelton wrote out this stirring monologue for Maron or he improvised it all based on his own experiences with addiction during the 1990s. This moment where Mel lets his guard down is easily the most moving scene in the film. For a podcaster who only recently started to go beyond minor roles — e.g., an integral part on Netflix’s Glow (2017- ) — Maron is unexpectedly commendable here.
Most of Sword of Trust’s humor tends to conform to the standard-fare indie-comedy routine. Conversations and interactions between characters are dry and frequently uncomfortable, with the writers clearly aiming for the occasional “pfft” from audiences by trying to make them cringe instead of laugh. Bell and Bass’ characters are prone to this kind of humor, especially when Bass leans into “lovable idiot” territory. (It’s almost as if he’s trying to emulate Danny McBride’s comedic style at times.) This can become grating — it’s a flavor of comedy that tends to drag out scenes long after the joke stops being funny — but it’s nothing new for those familiar with Shelton’s previous work or the films of Jay and Mark Duplass. In other words, it’s typical mumblecore: a genre that prides itself on low budgets, naturalistic sets, and improvised performances. (Shelton and the Duplass brothers have long been pillars of the style, with the former’s My Effortless Brilliance  and the latter’s Puffy Chair  serving as the genre’s templates for more than a decade now.)
The most innovative aspect is the film’s reliance on jokes about conspiracy theories and the notion of a “Deep State.” These are two of the more patently absurd facets of the political zeitgeist in 2019, and there’s some pleasure to be had in watching a film discredit such ridiculousness, even by proxy. Shelton’s use of long takes also feels like a departure from the traditional mumblecore style book. They give Sword of Trust an almost documentary feeling, despite the obvious improvisational comedy. This is refreshing, especially considering how many contemporary comedies rely on big-name improv comedians like Will Ferrell doing 10-plus versions of a joke with the understanding that the possible final take will be unearthed in the editing room. (This is so common, in fact, that Paramount was able to release Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Super-Sized R-Rated Version with “763 new jokes” — all alternate takes — back in 2013.) In general, fewer cuts are better, and Shelton seems to grasp this.
Leaning more toward enjoyable than galling for most of its running time, Sword of Trust is at its peak when it’s slicing through mumblecore norms in this way. While still embracing characters who are young, white, and aimless, the film does its best to discredit some of the worst people in America today — dogmatic individuals who would gladly harm anyone in opposition to their beliefs. It also manages to offer up a poignant commentary on consumerism and the notion of doing whatever it takes to earn enough money to get by (even if “whatever it takes” proves to be morally questionable). Bringing in real-world problems is a creative way for Shelton to push the boundaries of her cinematic niche, even if her characters just seemed irked by the film’s villains, rather than regarding them as any sort of real threat. Mel is just as annoyed with Nathaniel for wearing headphones at work as he is with the Civil War truthers and their dangerous ideology. Still, Sword of Trust suggests that mumblecore is changing, albeit slowly, into a genre with a more forthright social consciousness.