SWORD OF TRUST
Lynn Shelton came up in the mumblecore school of filmmaking, leaning heavily on improvisation to create shaggy, endearing human comedies like Humpday and Touchy Feely. In the case of her latest, Sword of Trust, the improv steps all over the toes of its characters.
The premise, though, is a good one. Cynthia and Mary (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) are an Alabama couple settling affairs following the death of Cynthia's grandfather. They're both perplexed to discover he's left them nothing but a 19th-century sword that — according to supposed authenticity certificates and a shadowy corner of the internet — proves the South actually won the Civil War.
They take the weapon to surly pawn shop owner Mel (Marc Maron), hoping to walk away with a little cash, though they all quickly realize it'd be worth quite a bit of dough to gullible YouTube conspiracy theorists. Alongside Mel's hopelessly useless assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass), they team up to sell it to a rich doomsday prepper, but that involves being held at gunpoint and driven out to the middle of nowhere.
The possibilities here are endless, but the movie plays it safe; this feels more like an extended sketch than a complete work. It also doesn't help that its glib, jokey tone grates against its potentially weighty issues, with its lily-white cast mostly treating the neo-Confederates as harmless slapstick buffoons.
But the movie briefly comes alive in its simple but effective centerpiece, a long conversation between its four principles as they take a long ride in the back of a trailer, knowing they could be headed into almost certain danger. It's the only time in Sword of Trust that feels honest, sincere and funny; if only the rest of the movie had struck the same tone. Available to rent on Amazon and YouTube.
— NATHAN WEINBENDER
Jim Arnaud is not an easy guy to like. The main character of writer-director-star Jim Cummings' Thunder Road is a small-town police officer with a volatile temper and a tendency to blurt out whatever's on his mind, regardless of the situation. He's introduced in a nearly 12-minute single-take sequence as he delivers a rambling, emotionally charged eulogy at his late mother's funeral, culminating in a deeply uncomfortable interpretive-dance performance set to the Bruce Springsteen song that gives the movie its title. That sequence is recreated almost exactly from Cummings' 2016 short film of the same name, although here Cummings makes the moment even more awkward by forcing Jim to perform without any actual music playing.
The rest of Thunder Road is no less tough to watch, as Jim careens from one tragicomic situation to another, dealing very poorly with his mother's death and his pending divorce from his estranged wife Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer). Although Jim is a decorated police officer and a mostly well-intentioned guy, he repeatedly breaks down on the job and has trouble relating to other people, including his young daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr).
Some of these interactions are morbidly funny, but Thunder Road is more of an emotional time bomb than a cringe comedy, and part of the movie's fascination is in waiting for Jim's next unsettling outburst (Cummings pulls off another mesmerizingly unhinged single-take speech around the movie's midpoint).
Despite his disturbing unpredictability, Jim is a largely sympathetic figure, thanks to Cummings' vulnerable, raw performance (he is an Oscar-level crier), and the movie has a redemption arc of sorts. Jim wants to be a better, more well-adjusted person even if he has no idea how to do that, and he's remarkably open to shedding the bonds of traditional masculinity in order to get there. Witnessing his struggle is difficult but rewarding. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
— JOSH BELL