The Melbourne International Film Festival is underway, and I’m already filled with anxiety over the lack of films I’ve been able to see. I want to feast. I want to be a glutton and spend every waking hour ensconced in a new film. I want to be constantly blown away, I want to be challenged, I want to be disappointed and confused, I want to see films that live up to the hype, ones that fall precipitously short, ones I have never heard of surprising me. I want to feel full and disgusted with myself over how much I’ve seen, knowing there were probably plenty of pressing life chores that required my attention.
I, like so many, must juggle multiple, fragmentary lives. The requirements of reality, of a job, of bills and deadlines and social life and extra-curricular activities, maybe even a date or two (it can happen!) force a cap on these utopian visions that I hold.
And so, I must be begrudgingly content with what I perceive, selfishly, as only morsels of films that I can dine on, while briefly recognising how lucky I am to have such an opportunity as this.
SWORD OF TRUST
Bullshit. It’s everywhere – inescapable, suffocating, annoying. The truth shouldn’t be so malleable and subservient to manipulations of people seeking to exploit others to attain power and control. It falls to the regular people to somehow deal with all the craziness in a continually exhausted, resigned loop that is some Black Mirror level nightmare. It doesn’t have to be an existentially suffocating disease, but it can be eternally grating, for someone like pawn shop owner, Mel (Marc Maron) who goes about his life in an unhurried, vaguely cantankerous, under the radar way. The regret in his life buried deep and emotionally closed to anyone around him.
Sword of Trust keeps the pace genial – essentially keeping the story tight across three sets – with a meandering yet cracking script allowing Maron, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell and Jon Bass plenty of room to shine. Bass’s face is eternally awash in a gawking, blank expression that disturbingly says so much about the state of things – more than any thinkpiece could hope to achieve. Bell is quickly reaching the fabled Kyle Chandler realm of performance dependability, instantly making anything she’s in stronger, while Watkins hilariously leans into relaxed dominance – the two of them playing a couple so natural and lived-in despite the barest of backstories.
When these four regular people – and they are, for all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, quite regular – are brought together to deal with a sword that may or may not be evidence that the South won the American Civil War, the pronounced idiocy and destruction of fact baffles and exhausts them at every turn. Make no mistake, this is a farce from only one perspective. It feels depressingly real these days, and there is no shortage of humour extracted from this paradox by director Lynn Shelton and her cast.
It dabs at the fringes of the cornucopia of issues that plague our society. Stories are told, constantly changing, the details thrown around as if the truth doesn’t really matter, and to some, it doesn’t. But for this quartet, in all their own ways, the truth does matter, even if they don’t want to confront it head on.
The presenting of a forgotten America, a past America, that may never have really existed seeps through this laid back, quiet comedy. Places and things, even people, look dated and weathered down. It’s a reality that has become, for many people, easier to ignore with the passage of time.
‘What a strange, horrifying experience,’ mutters a resigned Mel at one point. And that succinctly sums up the film, so perfectly delivered by Maron like he was born to tiredly growl Shelton’s dialogue. Events happened that probably shouldn’t have happened, regular decent people have to deal with this annoyance that still somehow exists, and they can’t do much about it besides riding it out until they finally work up the moxie to take some kind of action against it. But once it’s all done, they struggle to find a reason why it all happened in the first place.
I was ready to spend hours with the quartet, telling stories that are terse, loose, rambling and shockingly deep. We sometimes get blindsided by simplicity in execution, as if complexity yields thoughtfulness and narrative heft. There’s an assuredness to Shelton’s work that doesn’t feel the need to reach further than it has to, but to trust in the story being told as substantial enough.
And maybe the perceived slightness of the film fails to really take the points it’s trying to make by the scruff of its many necks and shake them loose until all the craziness scatters to the ground. It doesn’t surge into seismic showdowns, or bow down to cliched grand statements, nor is it brittle in its surety where it lands on the progressive spectrum, it just does it without fuss. It’s a ceaselessly engaging, understated film that lands with stealth emotional force when you least expect it, but maybe when it’s required the most.