ST. LOUIS - Mel (Marc Maron) doesn't like to beat around the bush.
The 53-year-old owner of a pawn shop with "sludge in his heart" in Birmingham, Alabama, Mel shoots customers straight, seemingly craving human interaction yet not being a huge fan of it at the same time.
When a Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell bring an ancient sword into his shop claiming it is proof that the South won the Civil War, Mel wants to call them crazy... until he does some research. Thus, as they say, the adventure truly begins with the most unlikely group of people.
Writer/director Lynn Shelton's (who also co-stars in the film as Mel's on/off again love interest) love for improv in her scripts pairs well with Maron's comedic sensibilities, conjuring up conversations that feel more raw than mapped out. If you are going to entice a wildly popular comedian with multiple strengths to come dance in your indie garden, turning him loose is a great selling point. It is this pairing of auteur and performer that makes 'Sword of Trust' an endearing time at the movies.
This is a movie about believing in wild conspiracy theories because there is a hope that it binds you to a past that is no longer around yet still allows for connection through artifacts and memories. Mel is a guy who doesn't believe in what he can't see or put a price on, so Mary and Cynthia test him to think outside the box, and in turn, find something in his own depleted soul that he has struggled to change or basically let go of.
The film lives and breathes on a rebellious eccentricity that is hard to sustain for an entire film, yet Shelton pulls it off. The characters, their interactions, the set pieces, plot twist and turns, and the flow all feel as if two writers-one crotchety and the other more optimistic-got together and carved out a story that would stand as unique upon inspection.
Creating believable characters and finding the right actors to embody them sure does help. The cast is up to the task here. Outside of Maron's brilliance, Watkins and Bell are very good here as equally strong women who won't let a guy like Mel or anyone else break their train of thought or free will. A couple trying to put Cynthia's grandfather's final wish in motion via selling, the actresses carve out interesting personas that propel the script.
Jon Bass has quirky fun as Mel's assistant while the esteemed Toby Huss steals scenes and owns one of the year's best screen names as Hog Jaws, a potential buyer with qualms about Civil War history. Dan Bakkedahl is convincing as a "kingpin" with unconventional methods of acquiring authenticity from a story. Al Elliott's Jimmy pops up time and again in the film with beverages and wisdom.
The anchor, though, is supplied by Maron. He's so good in this movie that you just believe whatever comes out of his mouth. The role of Mel seemingly fits him like a glove to the point of wondering where one ends and the other begins. In addition to acting, Maron wrote and performed the music heard in the film, acoustic-heavy tunes that serve as the oil in this cinematic engine. He takes advantage of the anything goes script, infusing Mel with his own background, uncoiling them all in one pivotal scene that takes place in a moving truck.
It is in this scene that I grew very close to the movie. It's not the fact that Shelton and Maron dump a lot of backstory on us, but it's the nonchalant way that it unfolds and how the actor plays it. Part of the gift of improvisation is taking what the environment and fellow actors give you, and using it to your advantage. It's like theater arts Jujitsu. It's a story about Mel that seems to ground the movie's endless quirks, and Maron nails it.
I like when filmmakers resist telling you everything there is to know about a main character in the first 30 minutes, instead allowing them to slow-cook and let the audience decide who they are and why they are that way. It's a decision that doesn't tell a viewer how to feel, thus making the cinematic experience more thrilling and rewarding. Shelton doesn't tell you what to think in Sword of Trust, which makes its many treasures lovely to find.
I knew little about this film before I went in, avoiding plots and previews. By the the credits rolled, I was left wanting more, as in time with the characters and another day at the Delta Pawn Shop in Alabama (which is an actual pawn shop in real life.) These small films with big hearts are brutally realistic like that, luring you in without star power or showy looks, just confidence in its navigation and a deceptive reflection of your own life.
You may not see 'Sword of Trust' coming, but I'd give it the time of day.