You don’t have to believe a conspiracy theory to buy into it. Sword of Trust, the latest film from indie queen Lynn Shelton, follows four adults who dabble in the world of Southern deep-state conspiracy in hopes of a pay-out — and a little enlightenment. The tight 90-minute comedy, now playing at FilmScene, capitalizes wonderfully on its game cast, playful script and ripped-from-the-headlines-and-served-a-la-mode subject matter.
The story starts when couple Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) travel to Birmingham, Alabama to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather — which turns out to be his coveted antique sword from the Civil War. The sword is legitimate, but the hand-scrawled story that Cynthia’s grandpappy includes with it is, to put it lightly, questionable: In so many incoherent sentences, he alleges the sword was surrendered by a Union general to Robert E. Lee after an epic battle, and it represented the North surrendering to the Southern cause. However, the battle and its implications were covered up by the shadow government; the sword is a rare piece of evidence of the Confederate victory.
Cynthia and Mary believe none of it, but they do see dollar signs.
They take the sword to Marc Maron’s pawn shop (Maron’s character’s name is Mel, but when is he ever not being Marc Maron?) and spin Grandpappy’s yarn in hopes of baiting a sucker. Maron isn’t such; he turns them away, but his flat-Earther employee, Nathaniel (Jon Bass, a dead ringer for 2003 Danny McBride), quickly digs up an internet community of Civil War truthers call the Invictusians offering big bucks for “evidence” of the Southern victory.
Maron and Nathaniel contact the Invictusian leader, invite the women back and team up to complete a lucrative but ill-advised deal with Confederate conspiracists — who, it turns out, aren’t the only weapon-toting Alabamans with their eye on the sword.
Shelton does a good job highlighting the set of personalities most susceptible to conspiracy theories, both as followers and peddlers: elderly people, particularly with dementia; bored and lonely young guys who spend way too much time on YouTube; people raised in dysfunctional homes, searching for meaning and power; and opportunistic assholes.
Conspiracy doesn’t flatter any character in the film, but it’s treated more with scoffs and pity than outright vitriol. In one scene, a couple of deadbeat truthers skeptically size-up Maron as “East Coast” (a euphemism that is quickly dropped when they derogatorily call him a Jew a minute later), but overall, Shelton doesn’t delve into the dark, racist corners of the Deep State/Confederate Lost-Causer ideologies she’s referencing.
Instead, her motley crew of sword dealers serve as extensions of the average unindoctrinated American who can’t get enough silly InfoWars compilations and cult documentaries — and who view subscribers of conspiracy theories as mere suckers; at one point, Mary even admits she finds the idea of meeting with the Invictusians “titillating,” like the news come to life. Of course, the silliness of the conspiracists’ beliefs don’t make them any less threatening, and it is the choices the protagonists make in the face of that threat, with tens of thousands of dollars on the line, that reveal their character. Meanwhile, Maron isn’t even sure why he’s seeking the money — but it might have something to do with his ex-girlfriend (played by Shelton) coming back into his life shortly before he learned of Grandpappy’s sword.
As with previous films, Shelton lets her actors riff on her script, adding a realism to the dialogue that is most successful when all four leads are in conversation. The film was shot in Birmingham (yes, actual Birmingham, not some L.A. suburb) in just 12 days, and it really feels like you’re watching a group of friends hash out a film project, leaving their pretensions at the door. There’s something inherently charming about mumblecore, but I tend to find it makes for less disciplined comedy, and that was the case here. That said, the improvisation yields a few funny gems, and you’ll likely find something to chuckle at.
Unlike Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, another dramedy in theaters now, touching on the dangers of a cult-like mindset, Sword of Trust demands a modest amount of your time and doesn’t bother with moral ambiguity, theatrical violence or rah-rah social commentary. It’s a poignant and accessible little indie for 2019 and a great showcase for its stars’ talent.