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

L to R: Mary (Michaela Watkins), Cynthia (Jillian Bell), Nathaniel (Jon Bass) and Mel (Marc Maron) get taken to a second location in <em>S</em>w<em>ord of Trust. </em>
IFC Films
L to R: Mary (Michaela Watkins), Cynthia (Jillian Bell), Nathaniel (Jon Bass) and Mel (Marc Maron) get taken to a second location in Sword of Trust.

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 justfunny. 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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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.