Largely improvised, and set across Alabama and Tennessee, Sword of Trust embraces the famously rambling, lackadaisical style of both improv scenes and the South. Even at a mere 89 minutes, it’s a film that’s definitely taking its time—to the betterment of its humanity if also to the detriment of feeling like a tight, finished comedy. Instead, it feels more like the early, assembly cut of an HBO pilot—and one that deserves a pick-up. Like the pawn shop at its center, there’s a lot of fantastic stuff in there, but it’s surrounded by plenty of less valuable pieces that—while certain to be cherished by some—most wouldn’t miss.
The film sees Marc Maron leading a strong ensemble cast as a cantankerous Birmingham pawn shop owner ever-frustrated by his distracted young employee, a conspiracy theory-loving Jon Bass. Couple Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins come in with a Civil War sword Bell just inherited from her grandfather, a dementia-addled senior claiming through a muddled written rant that it’s proof of the South actually winning the war.
It’s not, of course, because that doesn’t even make sense. But once Bass learns of a group of nutsos looking for such artifacts online, the four form a pact to sell it to them—tossing the quartet down a rabbit hole brimming with the combined sewage of both “truthers” and Confederate flag-hoisting racists.
Director Lynn Shelton, who also co-wrote with Mike O’Brien (like Watkins, a funny, brief SNL’er undeservedly cut after a single season), cited Pineapple Express as an inspiration for Sword of Trust. It indeed has some loose connective tissue to that film, though its story of a disconnected little crew getting in over their heads with a strange criminal element isn’t exactly unique. (We’re the Millers may be the more apt and recent example.) But the genre has likely never been performed so low-key as with this, a mumblecore variant (Shelton also tellingly directed Humpday) that frequently sacrifices comedy in the name of character moments and genuinely human naturalism.
It’s a brave approach to comic situations so easily made broad. And while the fairly thinly sketched characters don’t entirely hold up to it, the actors do, with Maron, Watkins, Bell, and Bass really keeping things aloft through some wonderful conviction and comic timing (in that order, incidentally, though Bass may still manage to get a pass on Baywatch now).
Like its runtime, Sword of Trust is pretty lean, touching on a lot of ideas but not getting into any of it all that much. But thanks to the deft performances from its stars, damned if it doesn’t leave you wanting for more, if often shorter, scenes. Seriously, can we cut this down to a one-hour dramedy pilot? Sword‘s ambling sprawl would be a delight if its indulgences were trimmed to 60-ish minutes and presented week-to-week—or, at least, skippable credits sequence-to-skippable credits sequence.
Sword of Trust
Director: Lynn Shelton
Studio: IFC Films
Runtime: 88 minutes
Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Tim Paul, Whitmer Thomas, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Jillian Bell