Sword of Trust (2019)

Directed by Lynn Shelton

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There’s something very Jim Jarmusch-ian about Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust.  Though her heavily improvised film is much more broadly comic than a typical Jarmusch film, the characters’ unlikely and quirky journey, with its twists turns and even dramatic let downs, feels… well Jarmusch-ian.  It’s not so much that the plot is half-assed, but it is certainly secondary to the story, itself an excuse to get a bunch of talented comedians to riff in character, expounding on themes of delusion, cultural history and how easy it is to be led astray.

The story concerns two pawn shop employees, Mel and Nathaniel (Marc Maron, Jon Bass) and a young couple, Cynthia and Mary (Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins), brought together when the couple tries to sell an inherited sword.  Cynthia inherits the sword from her grandfather who believed, either because of or despite his dementia, that the sword is a crucial piece of evidence that the South did, in fact, win the Civil War.

The couple present the sword and its unusual backstory to Mel, and though he understandably turns them away (mostly for not accepting his lowball offer), he does some digging and figures out that Civil War truthers will pay good money for the item.  Cynthia and Mary, not to be taken advantage of, insist on a 50/50 share of the profits.

After this point in the story, in a sense just the premise, the story doesn’t go much further, at least not on the surface.  They meet a buyer, comically sinister, who takes them to his boss, there is an altercation, and soon after we reach catharsis.  It’s quite simple, but the plot is just the loose outline within which the characters can talk, riff, crack jokes and tell us what the film is really about.

And that’s the strange world of various “truthers,” between people who believe the Earth is flat and those who believe the South won the Civil War.  That latter belief is perfectly absurd and somehow plausible for the times we live in.  It makes no real sense, but neither does the idea that the Earth is flat.

Characters will have time to discuss and debate these ideas, at least to a point, but the film never felt too heavy handed to me in its message.  It’s not exactly an indictment of people who believe in such things, but neither is it nuanced in its representation of those characters.  They are treated instead as comedy fodder, in a sense similar to the antagonists of BlacKkKlansman.  They are not to be understood so much as mocked.

At the same time even Nathaniel is mocked in a similar way, but he remains one of the “good guys,” even as his simple mindedness is played for laughs.  He ends up becoming a sort of human golden retriever, and his own truther theories are like the ramblings of a child.  To look at him with affection and bewilderment, well it seems that’s the way the film suggests we look at people who believe in these kinds of things.  While it works within this film, you could argue that the story completely ignores a much uglier side of all these theories and confounding beliefs.  Is it a failure in the education system?  Is it willful ignorance?  Is it pride, ego or something similar?  I’ve always felt that it might have to do with demanding agency in your own life, perhaps these are people who, without speaking too broadly, feel powerless and ignored and so are declaring their own beliefs that directly challenge the greater consensus, as a way of rebellion.  It’s something based more on emotion, of course, rather than rational thought.  If we feel something strongly enough, it seems, we can find any number of resources to defend our stance.  We are then cherry picking anecdotes that support a gut feeling rather than a thoughtfully considered hypothesis.

Or I don’t know.

But I like Sword of Trust.  There’s a long scene halfway through the film in which the four characters are stuck in the back of a truck and just talk.  It’s conversation that doesn’t drive the story forward and has nothing to do with all this truther-ness.  They just get to know each other, and it’s funny, wholesome and sincere.

Up Next: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Faults (2014), Into the Wild (2007)

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