Cynthia (Jillian Bell) travels to Birmingham, Ala. after her grandfather’s death, accompanied by her partner, Mary (Michaela Watkins). Cynthia learns that the bank owns her grandfather’s house, and all she’s left with is an antique sword from the Civil War, which comes with a note explaining its history (written under the influence of dementia) and an unusual certificate of authenticity.
Meanwhile, Mel (Marc Maron) is the owner of a sleepy pawn shop, where he buys vintage guitars, cowboy boots, and paintings that he may or may not keep for himself. When Cynthia and Mary walk in with a conspiracy theory about how the South really won the war and the sword proves it, Mel turns them away. But when he does his own research and finds conspiracy groups willing to pay thousands of dollars for certain Civil War artifacts, the group teams up, along with Mel’s airheaded employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass).
The joke of the movie is that the lead characters are generally good people (meaning they don’t endorse the Confederacy or calling it “the war of Northern aggression.”) Cynthia and Mary never say where they’re from, but it’s assumably more northern and liberal, since they have a bit of culture shock being in Alabama. Mel is from New Mexico (like Maron himself) but one conspiracy theorist tells him he seems like he’s “from” somewhere else (looks Jewish). Nathaniel believes in some conspiracy theories, like the Earth being flat, but is too dumb to do any real damage.
Sword of Trust doesn’t want to be one of those movies that is palpably desperate to address the current political climate. At the same time, it’s a movie about a lesbian couple/Jews selling memorabilia to neo-Confederates, so there are obvious political tones. Oddly though, no one in the movie, including the Confederacy conspiracists, care at all that there’s a lesbian couple involved. While it’s a nice Utopian sentiment, it’s a bit unbelievable. If these people are anti-Semitic and racist, they’re probably also homophobic. The movie is tonally uneven and can’t quite figure out where it falls in the realm of movies addressing modern Confederacy.
Still, the film - directed by Lynn Shelton, and written by Shelton and SNL-alum Mike O’Brien - is an enjoyable watch. As usual, Maron plays his strength as another grouch with a heart of gold, and the whole cast has nice chemistry with each other. There are some solid laughs, like when a man holding Mel at gunpoint makes him dance like a literal puppet.
Sword of Trust should’ve gone deeper if it was going to tackle such weighty topics, but at the same time, filmmakers shouldn’t shoehorn false depth beyond what they know. It’s refreshing when they know what they don’t know.
Sword of Trust opens Fri., Aug. 2 at Harris Theater. 809 Liberty Ave., Downtown.