In 'Sword Of Trust,' A Questionable Antique, An Unquestionable Cast

Jul 11, 2019
Originally published on July 11, 2019 7:52 pm

When Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her partner (Michaela Watkins) arrive in small-town Alabama for the reading of her grandfather's will, she thinks they're inheriting a house. But to pay for his final years, he'd taken out a reverse mortgage, so instead, she's handed ... an antique sword.

Disappointed, they head to a local pawnshop to spin a tale that will seduce the pawnbroker (Marc Maron) into parting with substantial cash. In the story they tell — cribbed from her grandfather's clearly unhinged diary entries — Cynthia's distant ancestor, a Field Marshal in the Confederate army, was given the sword when the Union General Sheridan surrendered it to him, at the "Battle of Chickabauga."

The pawnbroker (Marc Maron) points out that there's no record of any such battle ever happening. That's because, they assure him, her grandfather had evidence that it was buried from the history books by the "Deep State" — the shadow government — to hide the truth that the South, in fact, won the Civil War.

A quick internet search establishes that Cynthia's grandfather wasn't alone in believing this, and what follows is the shaggiest of shaggy-sword stories, involving deer-ticks, potentially lethal screwdrivers, and an online community of nut-jobs who'll pay a small fortune for relics they call "prover items" — like Cynthia's sword.

Director Lynn Shelton and screenwriter Mike O'Brien created a framework for the story, then turned a cast of terrific comics loose during a two-week shoot, to improvise inside that framework: among them, Bell as heir to the sword, and — doing riffs that would be the envy of many a scripted comedy — Maron's cranky pawnshop owner.

Shelton being a filmmaker who's always looking at how relationships work, Sword of Trust isn't content to be just funny. Maron's pawnbroker has an issue with an ex-girlfriend, who's played by the director, and if you know that in real life, Maron is a recovering addict who's been clean for 20 years, the way he frames that relationship can't help resonating:

"She keeps taking, taking," he says, "'till I'm drained, I got nothing left — I got no store, I got no life, I got no car, it'll just be me and her. Strung out. With a shopping cart. And maybe a cat, have you seen those cats that can be with homeless people? You'll be like, 'Man, this is sad,' and I'll be like, 'Yeah, but look at the cat.'

The story often does not go where you expect it to, and sometimes doesn't go ... much of anywhere at all. But as its cast of terrific comics thrusts and parries, Sword of Trust makes improvisation — something really difficult to pull off at feature length — seem an absolute snap.

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Knocking down conspiracy theories is an exhausting business. Fresh ones seem to crop up every day. But critic Bob Mondello says the new comedy "Sword Of Trust" looks at what happens when folks try leaning into a conspiracy theory instead of fighting it.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Cynthia thinks she's inheriting a house when she and her partner arrive in small-town Alabama for the reading of Grandpa's will. But to pay for his final years, there was a reverse mortgage. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Here you go.

JILLIAN BELL: (As Cynthia) What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's a sword.

BELL: (As Cynthia) What kind of sword?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) An antique one. Congratulations (laughter).

MONDELLO: It comes with some papers which explain why Gramps was so attached to the sword. They do not, however, offer a whole lot of comfort.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

MICHAELA WATKINS: (As Mary) Was he...

BELL: (As Cynthia) Demented - yeah, very.

WATKINS: (As Mary) This is not saying anything.

BELL: (As Cynthia) Yeah, it's bad.

MONDELLO: So they head to the local pawn shop, there to spin a tale that will seduce a pawnbroker into parting with substantial cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

BELL: (As Cynthia) This is a Union sword. This was given to my great-great-great-great-grandpappy, who was a field marshal in the Confederate Army.

MARC MARON: (As Mel) Yeah.

BELL: (As Cynthia) And this was surrendered to him by General Sherman (ph).

WATKINS: (As Mary) Sheridan.

BELL: (As Cynthia) Sheridan.

MARON: (As Mel) It was surrendered to him by a Union general. What battle are we talking about here?

WATKINS: (As Mary) This battle - oh, it's Chickaboga (ph).

MARON: (As Mel) Chickaboga?

WATKINS: (As Mary) Chickabowga (ph).

MARON: (As Mel) I don't think that battle is - that's...

WATKINS: (As Mary) Not familiar with it?

MARON: (As Mel) I don't think it happened.

MONDELLO: That's because, they tell him, Grandpa had evidence that it was buried from the history books by the deep state.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

MARON: (As Mel) Deep state?

WATKINS: (As Mary) Deep state, yeah.

BELL: (As Cynthia) Shadow government.

WATKINS: (As Mary) What you are looking at...

MARON: (As Mel) Yes...

WATKINS: (As Mary) ...Is a genuine relic, a very valuable piece of evidence that supports the actual truth, which is, the South won the war.

MARON: (As Mel) The South won the war.

WATKINS: (As Mary) That's right.

BELL: (As Cynthia) Show him the documentation.

MONDELLO: An Internet search establishes that Gramps wasn't alone in believing this. And what follows is the shaggiest of shaggy sword stories involving deer ticks, potentially lethal screwdrivers and an online community of nutjobs who will pay a small fortune for what they call prover items.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Forty thousand dollars.

MARON: (As Mel) Forty thousand dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) All right.

MARON: (As Mel) That's crazy.

MONDELLO: Director Lynn Shelton and screenwriter Mike O'Brien created a framework for the story, then turned a cast of terrific comics loose during a two-week shoot to improvise inside that framework. Among them - Jillian Bell as heir to the sword and, doing riffs that would be the envy of many a scripted comedy, Marc Maron as the cranky pawn shop owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

MARON: (As Mel) Fries - I can't eat them anymore. You know that. I've got sludge in my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, really? I thought you gave up on that organ years ago.

MARON: (As Mel) I did, but I still need it to function so I can stay alive. What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Do you have any ketchup?

MARON: (As Mel) I think there's a couple of packs of ketchup over there where you're usually sitting away from me without - you're like a growth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) All right.

MONDELLO: Shelton being a filmmaker who's always looking at how relationships work, "Sword Of Trust" isn't content to be just funny. Maron's pawnbroker has an issue with an ex-girlfriend who's played by the director. And if you know that in real life Maron's a recovering addict who's been clean for 20 years, the way he frames that relationship can't help resonating.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWORD OF TRUST")

MARON: (As Mel) She keeps taking, taking till I'm drained, I got nothing left, I got no store, I got no life, I got no car. It'll just be me and her strung out with a shopping cart, maybe a cat. Have you seen those cats that can be with homeless people? You'll be like, man, this is sad. And then I'll be like, yeah, but look at the cat.

MONDELLO: The story often does not go where you expect it to and sometimes doesn't go much of anywhere at all. But as its cast of terrific comics thrusts and parries, "Sword Of Trust" makes improvisation, something really difficult to pull off at feature length, seem an absolute snap.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.