SIFF Film Review – Sword of Trust
Sword of Trust
The opening film for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was Sword of Trust, directed by Seattle native Lynn Shelton. It’s the story of how pawnshop owner Mel (Marc Maron) receives an opportunity to make some big bucks, and how that opportunity gets real, real weird, real, real fast. One afternoon while Mel and his not-too-terribly bright employee Nathaniel are conducting business as usual, a couple come into his shop and try to sell him a Civil War era sword. Cynthia (Jillian Bell) has inherited it from her recently deceased grandfather, and she and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) have decided to sell it to soothe the sting of not inheriting his house. (Unbeknownst to them he had a reverse mortgage, and the house now belongs to the bank.) Discovered with the sword is documentation that seems to support the contention that the Civil War was actually won by the south. Mel doesn’t believe a word of this nonsense and gives them what he feels is a decent offer. Cynthia and Mary decide they are being lowballed and take their wares elsewhere, but when Nathaniel discovers there is a crap ton of money to be made off Civil War conspiracy truthers, the four band together to see if they can make some decent money from selling the sword. Little do they know what they are getting into when it turns out there is more than one group who want the sword to further their agenda.
I like Lynn Shelton’s movies and this is no exception. One of the main themes that runs through all of her films is the idea of human connection: of how hard it is to engage with others and how rewarding it can be when we finally let go of our walls and let people in. Cynthia expects to inherit her grandfather’s house and is somewhat bummed when she doesn’t. But she also feels guilty about not visiting him very much towards the end of his life. Their adventure to sell the sword starts out as a way to make some money off this weird item but turns into a way to connect to her grandfather and her memory of him as a loving caretaker. Mel, on the other hand, has a complicated relationship with his ex-girlfriend Deirdre (Lynn Shelton), who is on the hunt for a little money to fix her car. He believes she is just trying to score and hardens his heart to prevent being let down by her again. It doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film, but it’s a nice little character moment.
I think the best thing about this film is Marc Maron. I just like looking at him. Not in a weird objectifying way (at least I don’t think so) but he’s got an interesting face and a line delivery that tends to delight me more often than not. He’s not got a terribly wide range in his acting skills, but you hire Maron to be Maron, and that’s usually a good thing. I mean everybody’s fine here, but Maron is great as a guy who’s made a lot of mistakes and who just wants to get through his day without getting his heart broken.
I guess if I have a complaint about Shelton’s films, it’s that there is often no real weight to them. Even Outside In, which was about a much heavier subject, did not seem grounded in reality to me. This is a very light comedy that gets goofy in the end, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But there is a real opportunity here to discuss the morality of making money from people who are trying to deny the outcome of the civil war. I mean, none of those folks want to do that so they can pay people fair wages at their reclaimed plantations. It’s some racist slavery bullshit. And none of the four protagonists in this film have a conversation about the ethical implication regarding profiting off racism. The topic is mildly dealt with in the denouement, but it’s silly and gives the four an easy way out of any squickiness they might be feeling about their actions. I dunno. Sometimes I struggle with how to review things. I try to view something on its own terms and evaluate how it succeeds within what it is trying to achieve. But I also get frustrated at wasted opportunities, and I feel that way here. At no point does the film treat the Civil War truthers as rational people who are doing a good thing, but it also doesn’t deal with the questionable actions of those who are willing to give them fodder for their cause.
I’m not Lynn Shelton’s mom, and I can’t tell her what to do, but I can wish that she would push her filmmaking a little bit further. I really like her movies. I love their kindness and the humane treatment of her characters. I love how she likes to give a sense of place by pausing on shots of buildings in the neighborhood. I like their lightness and their goofiness. I recommend you go see Sword of Trust because it is a ton of fun. I just wish there was a little bit more there.