'Sword of Trust' carves out smart -- and surprisingly deep -- comedy

  • A moneymaking scheme takes a turn in "Sword of Trust," starring Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron and Jon Bass.

    A moneymaking scheme takes a turn in "Sword of Trust," starring Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron and Jon Bass. Courtesy of IFC Films

 
By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
Posted7/18/2019 6:00 AM

"Sword of Trust" - ★ ★ ★

There's a low-key charm about "Sword of Trust" that might lead viewers to mistaking its modesty for lack of ambition. But there's virtuosity at work in this beguiling comedy that's no less impressive for being improvisational and refreshingly self-effacing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There are no special effects or shootouts in this swift narrative, which limits its action mostly to three locations, one of which is the padded back of a moving truck. The explosions occur by way of chemistry between the film's four main actors, in their breezy and revealing banter and, in an extraordinary moment in the back of that truck, a breathtaking tonal pivot that sets the film on an entirely different and deeper course.

That moment belongs to the comedian and podcast host Marc Maron, who plays Mel, the owner of a Birmingham, Alabama, pawnshop. In a revelatory performance, Maron brings his own smart, acerbic persona to a man who never intended to own a pawnshop. As "Sword of Trust" opens, he is dickering with a customer, looking sarcastically askance at his slack-jawed helper Nathaniel, (Jon Bass), who is engrossed by conspiracy-theory videos.

Mel has seen it all, so when Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell) come in to sell a 19th-century sword, he isn't particularly impressed. But they also bring in paperwork suggesting that the sword proves the South won the Civil War, a claim that Nathaniel is familiar with from internet conspiracy sites, where groups of amateur revisionists put out calls for "prover items" to bolster their loopiest theories: "What is this? 'Antiques Roadshow' for racists?" Mel exclaims.

Soon enough, the four are in the back of that truck in an adventure that begins as a moneymaking scheme and promises to become a heroic journey into the heart of white supremacy at its most virulent and addle-minded.

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Directed with easygoing assurance by Lynn Shelton from a script she co-wrote with Mike O'Brien, "Sword of Trust" is a perfect comedy for our post-truth age, when historical consensus has become subject to the same kind of interpretive haggling as the price of a kitschy cream pitcher.

Things take a number of surprising turns as the group's pursuit of the truthers and their money becomes more perilous. But the most unexpected development is when Mel recounts just how he got to that pawnshop, in a monologue that Maron delivers with breathtaking poignancy.

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Starring: Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell

Directed by: Lynn Shelton

Other: An IFC Films release. Rated R for language. 89 minutes

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