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Thread: SWORD OF TRUST (Lynn Shelton 2019)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    SWORD OF TRUST (Lynn Shelton 2019)



    Shaggy dogs down South

    From the looks of it, Mumblecore-origins auteur Lynn Shelton was immersed in TV directing from 2014 to 2017, when she made the touching Outside In, about an ex-con struggling to cope on the outside after 20 years in prison. That may have seemed disappointingly conventional "indie" material to AV Club's Mike D'Angelo, as well as more fully scripted than her usual jokey, improvised work, but it was her most emotionally convincing effort of the four or so I've reviewed. Now, with Sword of Trust,, she is back to actors winging it with humorous material. This movie has a point to make. It's aim is skewering retro conspiracy theorists, with a sidelong mocking glance at internet idiots.

    Center stage is occupied by pawnshop owner Mel (Marc Maron of Netflix series "Glow") - whose business is located in Alabama; this is Shelton's first film made outside the Pacific Northwest. Mel's sidekick is the half bright Nathaniel (Joe Bass). Mel's skill set is shown when he pays $100 to a man for a metal guitar and pair of nice, but used, cowboy boots. But Maron's improvisational edge appears when he's approached by his ex Deirdre (Shelton). The sense of resentment, history, resisted pull he gives is distinctive.

    The action begins when Mel is approached by lesbian couple Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) with a civil war sword Cynthia has just inherited from her late grand pappy. They thought when Cynthia returned to her home state she was inheriting something more, but all she got was this relic. The movie nicely introduces this sword and its peculiar period authentication documents, with the cherishing of lost causes they so clearly represent. Mel offers $400 for the sword. But Mary, who takes over the bargaining for wife Cynthia, holds out for more. When they're gone, Nathaniel, who's more tech-savvy than Mel and a heap more linked to internet nuttiness, finds a fringe group of diehard Dixiecrats who believe the South won the Civil War. (That's the conspiracy: that the Unionists covered up the truth, and by rights white racists should be ruling the country. Perhaps they've gotten their wish.)

    These dudes will pay thousands nowadays, it seems, for "authenticated" "captured" Union swords that provide them with concrete "evidence" that the Confederacy should be running the country. The sword Cynthia has inherited (instead of the house that is in the hands of the bank) is supposed to have been given up by a high ranking Union officer, surrendering to Confederate authorities, at a now forgotten battle whose nature and name seem a bit vague. So Mel gets back in touch with the ladies. The dealing is on, and word goes out. A couple of menacing young southern crackers come looking for the sword. Danger is in the air, but also idiocy.

    A confident type called Hog Jaws ("Halt and Catch Fire's" Toby Huss) appears, who leads everybody to a rich man who'll buy the sword. The quartet plunge into interesting danger. If you're familiar with Lynn Shelton's work you can probably guess where all this goes (down the improvisational rabbit hole). Mac Maron, with the others, and some more including Dan Bakkedahl as the "Kingpin," do some nice improv around this theme of people who think the South was the true winner of the Civil War and cherish relics to prove it, with a side ramble in "flat earth" territory showing that while the internet is a great source of valid information for many, it also at least equally amply nurtures utter stupidity.

    This is good comic entertainment, ably improvised by all, with an ax to grind. It does have unusual political relevance for this filmmaker given the way it focuses (if not too provocatively) on the growing presence of conspiracy theorists and right wing white racism. But it's also the thinnest Lynn Shelton film I've seen yet in human emotional terms - less emotionally solid than Outside In, less warm and cuddly than Humpday, less sexy than Your Sister's Sister.

    Shelton shares writing credits with "SNL's" Michael Patrick O'Brien. We may note that Mike D'Angelo, who was so dissatisfied with the direction Shelton went with Outside In, now feels "It's a pleasure to see Shelton in her element again" with this predominantly improv movie. This does go back to her roots, perhaps, after she'd strayed farthest from them with her last feature. But the result seems pretty minor, and the focus on stupidest aspects of the South leaves us in a little bit of doubt about Shelton's ability to tune into the voices of new regions of the country.

    The best times are when actors get to perform a veritable aria of invention, notably in the padded mail truck carting the four to the "Kingpin," when Marc Maron's Mel becomes a rounded creation as he remembers for Cynthia and Mary how he wound up running an Alabama pawn shop and what his (druggy, lost) life used o be like with Deirdre. It's here that the film provides us with tantalizing hints of real emotional depths.

    Sword of Trust, 88 mins., debuted at South by Southwest in March 2019, showing in a couple of other US festivals. It had limited release July 12 (IFC Center and Landmark @57 West, NYC) and a wider release that comes July 19 (IFC). Metascore: 68%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-12-2019 at 10:22 AM.


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