What lies at the core of Lynn Shelton’s new comedy Sword of Trust are reliable support systems. And she points out how faulty and toxic those systems are. She even does it through subplots, like the one where she plays Deirdre, a woman who lives in Alabama. She has to pawn a ring for survival money. That ring, by the way, was a gift from pawn shop’s owner and the film’s protagonist Mel (Marc Maron). Mel’s assistant (Jon Bass) sympathizes with her, but she relies on Mel’s sympathies, which she, maybe deservedly, doesn’t get.
The other major characters also feel the trap of depending on toxic ideas. Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell). The titular sword, which Cynthia inherits from her grandfather, apparently proves that the South won the war. Cynthia wants nothing to do with the sword, but Mary does.
We interrupt this review for a political rant and to say that yes, the South won. The history books do write of a Union victory. But the Union acted like most victorious parties of modern civil wars do. They gave too many concessions that allowed for people like Cynthia’s grandfather to exist. I am writing this as a queer Canadian of color. One who wishes for nothing more than the Confederacy and the people benefiting from it racist legacy to be a faint memory.
That political subtext exists in this comedy. One where, in its first act, Marc Maron and Michaela Watkins fight over how much a sword is. Mary and Cynthia are lesbians and Mel is Jewish. But they can still pass as straight white people, rely on that privilege and monetize it. These scenes play off on their complementary strengths, showing Watkins’ expressiveness in comparison to Maron’s stoic face.
The film also highlights the distinctness of each character’s voices and mannerisms. This is remarkable in an unconventional comedy about history has equal parts of frustrating, fascinating, and entertaining. Mel, Mary, and Cynthia eventually agree to sell the sword to some Southern sympathizer named Hog Jaws (Toby Huss). Watching Mary coach Cynthia about the sword’s story behind Hog Jaws is both scary and funny. And as much as yes, the truth always wins in history, watching liars lie produce great results.
One thing I’ll say about this is that comedies like this will have weak spots. Here, it’s when it tries to be sentimental, especially when Mel’s back story comes about. And that back story involves ‘fallen’ Deirdre, who basically exists for Mel to rescue her. I guess she handles that kind of romantic story line better than some sentimental male director would.
But for the most part, this comedy that is tangentially about the civil war actually works. It works because Shelton gives her actors the freedom to improvise without it getting out hand. Fans of Maron would love this and love how much he puts his real self in Mel. Lastly, Marc Maron insults a few people here, and I would pay tens of dollars for him to do that to me.
Sword of Trust is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go see it!
- Release Date: 7/19/2019