Last month, an unorthodox comedy appeared in a handful of movie theaters across the country. The closest it got to the Tampa Bay area was a limited engagement at Barnstorm Theater in The Villages and at the Bill Cosford Cinema, a single-screen, art-house cinema serving the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
Distributed by IFC Films, “Sword of Trust” continues to make the rounds in brick-and-mortar theaters and also is now available to stream through a number of platforms, including Amazon Digital, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube Rentals. It is worth tracking down if you enjoy slice-of-life comedies that veer far off the beaten path in terms of subject matter and style.
“Sword of Trust” is directed by Lynn Shelton. Although her name may not be instantly familiar, this is her eighth feature film. Her prior films include “Your Sister’s Sister,” starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Mark Duplass; “Touchy Feely,” starring DeWitt, Allison Janney, and Ellen Page; and “Laggies,” starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. Shelton also directed individual episodes of shows such as “Mad Men,” “New Girl,” “The Mindy Project” and “Glow.”
There is nothing about “Sword of Trust” that conforms to current Hollywood inclinations. Instead of playing out in meticulously outlined episodic acts, its character-driven story meanders and drifts. Instead of employing pithy lines of dialogue strategically placed for maximum impact, the actors converse in a manner that is so authentic it occasionally becomes a bit monotonous. Its conflict is minimalist by design and the resolution of the plot is atypical in cinema, but undeniably true-to-life.
To me, that all adds up to something wonderfully unconventional.
The story follows Mel (Marc Maron), a crabby but ultimately decent pawnshop owner in Alabama. Nathaniel (Jon Bass), his only employee, is a chronic slacker and Internet junkie. One day, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) walk into Mel’s shop with an unusual artifact and an unbelievable tale. Instead of leaving her his home, Cynthia’s deceased grandfather bequeathed to her a Civil War era sword. In a letter addressed to his granddaughter, he claims the relic offers proof that the South actually won the war.
Despite their doubts in the veracity of the legend, the four wind up working together to try to sell the sword. Their offer draws the attention of some fanatical conspiracy theorists and leads them to some potentially dangerous confrontations and absurd situations.
While “Sword of Trust” is based on a screenplay by Shelton and Mike O'Brien, much of it — particularly the dialogue — is improvised. That explains those ambling conversations and sporadic moments of awkwardness. It also explains why the offbeat characters seem so genuine on screen. What’s more surprising is the authenticity of the rapport that develops among them.
Imagine making a film with little emphasis on the rehearsal process.
“With improvisation, I find that actual rehearsal is a terrible idea because often, right out of the gate, the first stab at a scene may be the best, so you always want to have the cameras on to capture potential ‘lightning in a bottle,’” Shelton said in the production notes. “Instead of rehearsing, I like to develop on-screen chemistry by trying to have folks get together before the production who are going to be playing characters in relationships with each other. It’s enormously helpful if folks can get used to being in each other’s presence before landing on a set, even if it’s for a minimal amount.”
Both memorable and entertaining, the film’s improvisational style sometimes causes uneven pacing and clumsy moments as some supporting actors fail to engage convincingly with the primary cast. That is not the case for Al Elliott, who is marvelous as Jimmy. Elliott, an educator, artist and actor, shared his experiences filming “Sword of Trust” in an article posted on the online publishing platform Medium. In the article, he reveals that the cast and crew were able to shoot the entire film in only 12 days — 12 days!
Of course “Sword of Trust” did not get a wide theatrical release. It is not the type of film that plays to sellout crowds and keeps theater seats full for weeks on end. It is manifestly eccentric and wonderfully absurd in its simplicity. It gently pokes fun at conspiracy theorists and “truthers” in an age of post-truth politics. It even addresses the tragedy of addiction. It does all these things without ever becoming pompous or preachy.
“Sword of Trust” is honest, unpretentious and populated by interesting characters so endearing that the end of the film left me wondering what would happen in the next chapter of their lives.
Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines.