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Sword of Trust

by on July 31, 2019
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Sword of Trust is a fairly simple and stripped-down movie. The bare-bones story and small cast lends itself well to the film’s nature as an improv-comedy, in which most of the character interactions are ad-libbed along a general outline of where the story is supposed to go. I always feel strange deciding whether or not to recommend improv films, because I think they tend to require a certain appreciation for the art of improvisation, acting, comedic timing, and filmmaking around such an informal and disorganized acting style. To boot, improv films can tend to be a little dry (likely at caution of being too over-the-top and not landing well), so they’re rarely the “funniest” movies you’ll see. But as someone who gets a lot of pleasure from the smaller, more subtle laughs one can find in the intricate details of an actor’s performance, I’m a fan. And as improv-comedies go, Sword of Trust is a pretty good one.

The story is centered around Mel (Marc Maron), a pawn shop owner in Birmingham, Alabama marked predominantly by his common sense, snark, and cynicism. Mel meets a bubbly couple, Cynthia and Mary (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins), when they come into his store trying to pawn a Union Army sword from the Civil War, left to Cynthia by her grandfather, which he purported in writing was hard proof that the South won the war. After initially shrugging them off as wacko conspiracy theorists, Mel and his ditzy employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass) discover that there is a community of online believers who will pay top-dollar for such “proof.” What follows is Mel’s, Nathaniel’s, Cynthia’s, and Mary’s descent into the regressive community of hillbilly “Invictusians” (alleged truth-seekers) in an attempt to make some serious cash on the sword.

The film is mostly very dry and understated in its style and delivery of comedy. You’re more likely to exhale out of your nose several times than to bust a gut laughing. The wacky backwoods shenanigans at a conspiracy group’s headquarters is about the most absurd the movie gets, but even at that, it feels less like comic hyperbole and more like holding up a mirror to a certain group of political zealots who dominate the “alternative news” outlets and back-room internet forums we see all-too-much of today. The commentary on display is obvious and confident, but it’s no less true, and often pretty entertaining. A few moments in the film’s climax feel a little shark-jumpy, almost entering the ludicrous behavior in blockbuster comedies like Stuber or Isn’t It Romantic, but writer-director Lynn Shelton largely maintains the film’s brand of low-key laughs and off-the-cuff jabs.

If you’re looking for the biggest, most memorable, or even the most clever laughs of the year, Sword of Trust probably doesn’t have them. It is funny, and mostly pretty smart about it, but it doesn’t reach the comedic or resonant heights needed to make the top of any annual lists. A well-acted but underused emotional thread for Mel gives the film a little needed extra weight, but much like the comedy, even that is played fairly nonchalant. That said, if you like improv, and if you like strong acting performances in your comedy, Sword of Trust is worth checking out.

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