Enjoyable and imminently forgettable
A good TV sitcom expertly strings viewers along through sharp characterization, predictable-yet-still-funny jokes and an underlying social consciousness that occasionally comes to the fore. They are about something, sort of, but in general viewers stay tuned because they like the characters and set pieces. It is in this sense that Sword of Trust closely resembles a good sitcom, which is unsurprising given that the director and primary cast members are all TV people. Like most sitcoms, the film is also simultaneously enjoyable and imminently forgettable, a disposable way for viewers to entertain themselves for an hour and a half. Those viewers might laugh and will have a good time, but they are not going to bring Sword of Trust up in conversations six months from now.
The plot is fairly straightforward and feels like being embedded in a Reply All “Yes Yes No” podcast episode. Mel (Marc Maron) owns a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama. One day, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a lesbian couple from out of town, come in bearing an old Union officer’s sword from the Civil War. It was Cynthia’s inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather and came with an incoherent letter offering up the story of the sword. The crux of the sword’s value is that her grandfather claims it is proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War and will help to dispel the grand conspiracy – propagated by the North – that the war’s outcome actually went against the Confederacy. None of the characters believe the tale, of course, but know that the sword’s sell price will increase if they pretend to do so.
Mel’s only employee at the shop is Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a know-nothing, do-nothing millennial whose only viable job skill is internet literacy. Online, Nathaniel finds a fringe conspiracy theorist leading a movement seeking to prove that the Confederacy really did win and tells him about the sword; this conspiracy theorist offers to pay $40,000 for the sword, 100 times its value. So Mel, Nathaniel, Mary and Cynthia embark on a plot of their own to meet up with the Southern apologist wackos, sell them the sword and laugh all the way to the bank with their cash.
But the film is not really about the worrying proliferation of conspiracy theories that social media culture enables. It does not try to tackle racism, nor does it make a big deal of Cynthia and Mary being lesbians. This is for the good. It would be too complicated to flesh out characters on the conspiracists’ side to allow for a discussion of the issue. In fact, most of the Southern revanchists are caricatured as bumpkins who seem incapable of thinking in complete sentences, and this feels right; films should not be providing platforms for Pizzagate provocateurs or Sandy Hook hoaxers. The closest Sword of Truth comes to saying something socially meaningful is a small and effective twist once Mel and company meet the head honcho who actually ponies up the money for the sword.
Instead, Sword of Truth lets its characters be. Each of the primary cast members gets enough screen time and backstory to be plausible, and the actors inhabit the roles well. By far the best scene in the film features the four riding in the back of a moving van on their way to that head honcho’s house, and sharing a bit about their lives and their motivations for going through with this audacious plan to rip off a few racist morons by playing into their delusions. It’s a scene out of a sitcom, yet it emphasizes the strengths of Shelton and her cast.