As the son of historians (real ones), it was a while before I learned the peculiar myth of “the Lost Cause.” Despite growing up in the South, I did not see Gone with the Wind until high school, although by then I understood what Southern Revisionism was about: referring to a conflict that began when rebelling South Carolinians opened fire on Fort Sumter as “the War of Northern Aggression,” and a war of states’ rights—primarily the right of slavery, although that is a less enthusiastically spoken of detail. Even so, meeting actual history majors in universities who’d argue until they turned red that the Civil War was not about slavery is to this day head-scratching. It also might be quaint given the escalation of “alternative facts” that Sword of Trust has a field day with.
If more than a century of rewriting history has proven anything, it’s that folks will believe what they want to believe. But how much you judge them for it becomes a point of great humor and moral malleability in Lynn Shelton’s new comedy that enjoyed a SXSW premiere last night. Starring one of the great gabbers of our day, Marc Maron, Sword attempts to converse with a social media-enabled alternate universe where delusions become shared “flat earther” movements, and it traces this type of nonsense back to one of its earliest American sources: a war of Northern aggression that, according to a certain subset in the movie, ended with the North’s unconditional surrender. And why not? In a world where the “hollow earth” theory is making a comeback, why not imagine Robert E. Lee completely defeating Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps while riding a dinosaur?
The setup for this journey into the heart of dimness is that Maron’s Mel is a fast-talking proprietor of a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama. It is there that the lesbian couple of Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) bring in a Union officer’s sword from the Civil War. Cynthia’s senile grandfather left it to her with a page of gibberish claiming it was surrendered to their ancestor at an imaginary battle that ended the war in the South’s favor. Cynthia and Mary know it’s the ravings of an ailing man, but when it’s Cynthia’s whole inheritance, Mary finds conviction in the art of the spiel.
Mel ain’t buying it, however, even if his sweet-natured sidekick Nathaniel (Jon Bass) seems a little more open to the idea (as well as every conspiracy theory). But what Mel does buy is there’s a sucker born every minute, many of whom will pay thousands of dollars for a comforting lie. Agreeing to act as Mary’s middleman, all four characters quickly wind up in over their heads when they discover it doesn’t take a PhD in history to hold a gun, or demand a sacred relic of the Confederacy be turned over while threatening “Northeasterners.”
As a traditional lackadaisical indie comedy, what makes Sword of Trust stand out is not so much the easygoing humor between Mel and Mary’s repertoire but the unexpected goodwill of its premise. By encapsulating a false reality bubble so outlandish that I had to check to be sure no one actually believes it, the film cuts to the heart of living in a world where facts are increasingly irrelevant, and yet still doesn’t seek to condemn so much as comprehend.
Crafting a sliding scale of lunacy starting with the well-meaning Nathaniel, played with just enough earnestness to not be total caricature by Bass, Shelton and her co-screenwriter Mike O’Brien take a sophisticated eye to the subject matter while knowing the type of deplorable who shows up to Mel’s place of business with a weapon is past the point of good natured, American ribbing. Having worked with Maron on Netflix’s cult favorite GLOW, Shelton offers here the same quirky sensibility by celebrating the marginalized if maybe not their most bizarre ideas.
She is also aided by a game cast. Seemingly born with an unkempt beard over his lip and a smart word out his mouth, Maron portrays a variation on his podcast persona, which is perfect in a film that requires him to be perpetually thunderstruck at his deteriorating circumstances. Bell and Watkins also shine as Mel’s counters, with Watkins proving as verbally combative as Maron, and Bell continuing to underscore her overlooked talent by giving the film the closest thing to a grace note, even as she does so while holding a gun in the face of crazy.
The film’s merits overcome the relative smallness of its visual aesthetic, which is often indistinguishable from actual single-camera TV efforts, and a script that is so intent on keeping its happy-go-lucky cheer up that grim subplots fall away and crucial plot points are gingerly waved off. There will also likely be some who take umbrage with a film offering a nuanced reading of people—even those who believe foolish or awful things—can be more than one definition that’s confined to a tweet.
Yet that level of ability to know people, even those we might deem as living on another planet, is what makes Sword of Trust so truthful. Besides, Mel sums up the appeal of his own adventure when he tries to rationalize why he’s about to get into the windowless back of someone’s truck: You read about things like this, but we’re about drive right into the central brain of a hive-mind. Who doesn’t get in? Maybe while there, they can even find out where that cause got lost to so long ago.