He’s just past the expiration date to qualify as a hipster. At 54, rumpled, technology-challenged Mel has seen his rock dreams fade away in New York City, only to wind up improbably running a low-rent pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama. Although he’s not especially political, he has reason to be wary when he’s thrust into the dark heart of Southern redneck culture in Lynn Shelton’s very funny comedy Sword Of Trust.
Mel is played by Marc Maron, better known as a stand-up comedy performer and podcaster. Filmmaker Shelton conceived the part of Mel as a showcase for Maron’s dry wit and scruffy sarcasm beneath a facade of rational cool—all on full display here, since so much of the movie’s dialogue was improvised. And Maron is up to the task; funny on a dime, yet just as persuasive in the character’s more serious and revealing moments. He provides the grounding for the rest of the excellent cast to build on. (An accomplished guitarist, he also composed and plays the bluesy guitar riffs on the soundtrack.)
Mel is the proprietor of Delta Pawn, a business he inherited from an uncle. His only employee, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), is kind of a good-natured dimbulb, and not much use around the shop, but he knows how to use the phone and do research online. Mel has an easygoing friendship with Jimmy (a terrific Al Elliott), the African-American owner of the diner next door who pops in periodically to trade jokes.
Into the shop one day walks Mary (Michaela Watkins), a no-nonsense outlier with an urban vibe, and her more pliant girlfriend Cynthia (Jillian Bell), whose Southern roots are still slightly traceable in her accent. They’ve just come from the estate of Cynthia’s deceased granddaddy, and while she didn’t inherit the house itself, Cynthia brings in the one item that was left to her—a Civil War sword.
But not just any sword. Enclosed documentation claims it “proves” that the South won the war. Mel is ready to laugh them out of the shop—until Nathaniel discovers an entire subculture of “provers” online. Convinced that the truth about the South actually winning the war has been “buried by the Deep State,” these folks are dedicated to collecting evidence that proves otherwise—and ready to pay big bucks for it. (Watching one online video post exhorting viewers to search their attics, Mel cracks, “Is this Antiques Roadshow for racists?”)
When a potential buyer makes a sizeable offer, and Mel and Mary agree they should join forces and split the profit, their journey down the rabbit hole begins. The shop is visited by a fellow called Hog Jaws (Toby Huss) for a preliminary look at the merchandise. A couple of junior-league bigots try to menace Mel for being an “East Coaster” (i.e., Jewish)—although he’s actually from New Mexico.
Finally, it’s time for Hog Jaws to escort the four uneasy business partners—Mel, Nathaniel, Mary, and Cynthia—along with the sword, out to meet “the boss.” It’s a long journey into the woods, shut up in a van without windows or seats but with an entirely carpeted interior. “This is how people die,” they remind each other, as they realize they’re entering into “the brain” of redneck craziness. “Apparently, it’s carpeted.” Irony won’t be much of a weapon if things get dire, but it’s all they’ve got.
More than this I won’t reveal, story-wise—the little twists and turns of the plot are way more delicious to discover along the way. The conversations are sharp and funny, with a few poignant moments sprinkled in. The actors are perfectly cast, including Dan Bakkedahl as the fearsome boss of the provers, and director Shelton herself in a key scene as Deirdre, Mel’s outwardly perky but fragile ex, who just can’t get herself clean. It’s a well-crafted movie of many small pleasures that add up to big fun.
SWORD OF TRUST ***1/2 (out of four) With Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, and Jon Bass. Written by Lynn Shelton and Mike O’Brien. Directed by Lynn Shelton. Rated R. 89 minutes.