Sword of Trust (2019)
Written by Mike O’Brien & Lynn Shelton
Directed by Lynn Shelton
There’s a penchant these days for comedy films to rely on improvisation as a crutch, a means to extend the runtime by allowing actors to riff. The idea is that in editing the best takes will be cobbled together and thus there’s the comedy. This ignores the fact that actual good comedic movies are a synthesis of strong writing and actors who can interpret the material, adding their own personality to the picture. The most recent Ghostbusters film is an excellent example of this where the scripted bits are weak and the improv moments are most obviously filler. There are constant cuts to Kate MacKinnon hamming it up, seemingly unconnected to the events in the story. Improv does have a place in cinema, but it should be used sparingly and alongside a strong script, not as a way to stretch a weak story out.
Sword of Trust is an example of a terrific comedic film that uses a lot of improv from its actors. The cast is a talented quartet made up of Marc Maron, Mikaela Watkins, Jillian Bell, and Jon Bass. These performers’ tones are all more on the muted side, their improv is a gesture or an amusing reaction, nothing that overpowers the story and steals the show. The relationship with the other character informs the improv, and they bounce off of each other and seek to hold up the other’s choices and emphasize what’s funny about them. As a result, Sword of Trust is not a movie that’s going to appeal to a broad audience, and it will be people who enjoy strong acting that really get the most out of this movie, viewers that pick up on all the subtly.
Cynthia (Jillian Bell) comes to claim the inheritance left to her by her late grandfather who lived his whole life in Alabama. She and her wife, Mary (Mikaela Watkins) are surprised that the only thing being handed over is an antique sword from the Civil War. The documents presented alongside the artifact include a letter written by the deceased man poorly explaining that this sword is proof that the South won the war. They decide to try and make a quick buck by selling the object at a local pawn shop run by Mel (Marc Maron) and Nathaniel (Jon Bass). Mel doesn’t buy the far-out story behind the sword but says he’ll see if he can find a buyer. He eventually does, a white supremacist group focused on proving the South’s dominance. But this first contact leads to a strange series of encounters that has the quartet going to meet the head of this conspiracy-obsessed cabal.
The strength of the picture is its well written and developed characters. There are not stereotypes or cliches, even the white supremacists end up with some clever reveals. The story is incredibly meandering, most of the action taking place in the quiet pawnshop storefront with very little actually happening. Conversations between characters are enjoyable to hear, and these actors are confident enough that they don’t feel the need to crack jokes regularly. Humor comes out of small moments instead of bloated, overblown set-pieces.
There’s an effort to inject some realism into what could be an over the top movie. One significant moment comes when Mel’s ex-girlfriend, Deidre comes into the store. She wants to sell some items, and at the time we don’t know why Mel would be so reticent to do business. There’s a monologue later where Mel tells the story of his relationship with Deidre and what ultimately led him to run this shop. But in that earlier moment, we don’t need to know the details yet, we understand what it’s like to have a complicated romantic history and the difficulties it creates in the most simple social interactions.
Sword of Trust is a comedy that believes in the quiet moments, knowing they add to the atmosphere and the story. Sometimes we need to just linger in a space, with no plot beat to hit, just listening to a person tell their story. Humor comes out of the mundane, and there is no massive realization of universal truths. The final shots of the picture are Mel walking through his Birmingham neighborhood, headed back to work, a little wiser but never claiming to know all the answers.