Lynn Shelton makes magnificently messy movies. A low-key fixture on the indie scene that gave us the Duplass brothers and various other prolific ragged-glory filmmakers, she’s a writer-director who specializes in skewed character studies; her best work — notably 2011’s Your Sister’s Sister — sands down the idiosyncrasies just enough to let her stable of kooks’ humanity peek through. They’re fuck-ups and flawed everyday folks that you recognize, sometimes painfully so. The rhythms are loose, the plots pleasantly meander, the performances are uniformly extraordinary. Emotional beats trump explosive revelations. (All of which points to why she’s become a clutch hire for TV dramedies — see GLOW, The Mindy Project, Fresh Off the Boat.)
It helps to know, or be reminded of, these things going into Sword of Trust, given that there are two movies jockeying for position on the screen and you may be slightly frustrated by the one you end up getting. Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her longtime girlfriend, Mary (Michaela Watkins), travel to Birmingham, Alabama, to settle a family affair. The former’s elderly grandfather has passed away; they think they’re getting his house. Instead, they find out that they’ve inherited a sword. Upon further investigation, they discover the heirloom is not just a Civil War artifact but a saber belonging to a Union general — Sherman? Sheridan? No one’s quite sure — that was surrendered to the Confederate Army. They try to sell it to a local pawn shop owner named Mel (Marc Maron). He’s not interested.
Then his assistant (Jon Bass), a YouTube addict and flat-earther, discovers online that the weapon is a “prover item,” i.e. incontrovertible evidence that the South actually won the War of Northern Aggression. Some parties are willing to pay a small fortune for it. Mel, naturally, has a change of heart. Soon, the foursome find themselves nose-deep in rogue conspiracy theorists, neo-Confederates, historical revisionists, menacing white supremacists with names like Hog Jaws (god bless you, Toby Huss) and your run-of-the-mill get-rich-quick racists.
If you think that’s quite a premise for a satirical take about our dark national moment, when notions of “heritage” are being bastardized and the concept of reality is consistently under fire, you’d be correct. It isn’t what Shelton is interested in, however. She and her cowriter, SNL vet Mike O’Brien, view this American-underbelly exotica as a background to the shaggy-dog shenanigans of the movie’s quirky misfit quartet. More attention is paid to Mel’s rocky relationship with a poet — a human shudder played by Shelton herself — who figures into his guilt-ridden backstory. Personal pasts take precedent over cultural tug-of-wars regarding the country’s past, and any bigger-picture pokes take a backseat to mildly barbed wit. (Though a hate-mongering character who exploits the racist beliefs of his “base” for profit and power does suggest a real-life inspiration.) As with her 2009 movie Humpday, a daring variation on straight bromance movies that doesn’t have the courage to take things to their logical conclusion, there’s a sense that lots of genuinely interesting material is being left on the table.
Shelton, of course, has no responsibility to make a penetrating takedown on the rise of toxic “alternate” viewpoints in the public forum, regardless of whether she dabbles in what a character calls a “portal” to American deplorability. She only has a responsibility to make the movie she wants to make, slight or not. So instead we get off-the-cuff exchanges and a handful of oddly funny moments and the usual yeoman’s work from actors who clearly love to work with her. Bass makes for a convincing mouthbreather; Bell and Watkins have such great chemistry as a couple that you wish their relationship had been fleshed out even more. Everything could be sharper. It isn’t dull.
As for Maron, the comedian keeps developing his chops the more he’s onscreen. His Mel feels like a cross between the cranky, neurotic persona he displays in his stand-up and his interview podcast WTF, and his weary but empathetic misanthrope from GLOW. (Maron also provides the film’s score, a series of reverbed-guitar interludes similar to his podcast’s outros.) But he knows how to underplay pathos in the best possible way, and his monologue about watching an old girlfriend slide into a drug-fueled descent hits harder by being delivered softly. Even if you did not know the comic is a recovering addict, the speech is a heartbreaker. Maron may not go wide in terms of range yet. But damned if he can’t go deep.