Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Lost Cause: THE DEAD DON'T DIE and SWORD OF TRUST

This summer gave us two small, mattter-of-fact, hard-edged comedies from veteran indie auteurs that reflect the dark currents of our contemporary national moment. First was Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the deadest of deadpan comedies, an affectionate zombie movie riffing on classically Romero metaphors of consumerism and cultural fatalism with an affect so flat that the stock genre characters are practically sleepwalking, even admitting to one another by the end that, hey, at least one of them comes by his hopelessness honestly. He read the script. (Jarmusch takes clear delight in slyly puncturing the fourth wall, like casually name dropping himself, slyly making a character a fan of the franchise that actor currently stars in, and having the Sturgill Simpson theme song under the opening credits become diagetic music a character will call “the theme song.”) He’s assembled an all-star cast to stand in simply posed scenes to react to the end of the world, as polar fracking causes the earth to knock off its axis, the days to last well into the night, and the dead to rise from their graves craving coffee and smart phones. These zombies bleed dust, like the life-force has already faded away. A small town’s cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny) basically give up before they even start, occasionally exiting their roundabouts and roundelays of dialogue and action to muster up a defense. But they, and everyone they meet in this Centerville, are practically flattened out by the inevitable despair — “this won’t end well,” Driver murmurs in his recurring line — and by the sense that they’re doomed to play out the end of the world to the bitter end. There’s nothing they can do to change what’s coming. The townspeople (Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits) make some efforts to protect themselves. Only some pretty city kids (a sunny Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat) bring some light into this town — so of course they’re among the first to get targeted by the deathless flesh-eaters. Unlike his first pivot to monster movies, the pale, cool, Detroit vampires movie Only Lovers Left Alive, which grooved on an aesthetic interest and emotional investment in the artful boredom of its characters cursed immortality, here Jarmusch barely can bring himself to take the zombies seriously. It’s a means to an end, a way to riff and rumble, to enjoy the trappings and tropes and star personas evoked with characters who see everything crumble around them, who see no way out. He takes the doom seriously. It feels familiar, a fun house mirror to our current state of affairs, where most realize something very wrong is happening and yet all appear powerless to stop it. Even so, even in their state of near paralysis at the state of everything — with every loopy plot development that derails what you’d expect — they manage to muster the small courage to fight back. If this is the end, at least we can go down swinging.

Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a reaction to the current climate told in a more realistic mode: an intimate character drama told in the loose, improvisatory comedy style that is her hallmark. The mumblecore alum — who has since helmed some of the best episodes of Mad Men, Glow, and other prestige TV series, as well as some underrated low-budget movie star character comedies like the charming Keira Knightley/Chloe Grace Moretz film Laggies —here stages a suitably loony excursion into the world of conspiracy theories and alternative facts. It has a gooier sentimental streak, and a bright sitcom visual style, but, more often than not, has a sharp point. It finds a pawn shop proprietor (Marc Maron) attempting to find a buyer for a Civil War-era sword a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) would like to sell him. His younger employee (Jon Bass) discovers a YouTube page of Confederacy truthers who claim the Deep State has buried the real facts that would prove the Union army surrendered and actually lost the war lo those many years ago. Although neither the sword’s owners nor the shop’s staff actually believe this hogwash, they hope that the shady racists will believe the antique is all the proof they need — and will pay a five digit figure for it. Through circular conversations and alternately cynical and earnest connections, this unlikely group will stumble into this dark underbelly, encountering some shady characters (the funniest has to be a self-serious man who insists his name is “Hog Jaws”) and oddball motivations as the plot slowly stumbles to its kooky conclusion. It’s attuned to the financial strain of its characters, and compassionate for their relationship struggles and easy eccentricities. The performers are universally strong, working well together in fleshing out scenes with laugh-out-loud asides and sympathetic backstories. And the film will then spare no mercy in mocking the warped ignorance of those who cling to conspiratorial thinking, getting broader and sillier. (There’s even a fine, funny late turn of the knife where one main character proudly declaims that, although of course it’s ridiculous to assert that the Confederacy secretly won the Civil War, the flat-earthers are on to something.) Here’s a movie about the slippage of truth, couched in the humble terms of a struggling group of characters losing themselves in the pursuit of more stable ground. When we give up a little of ourselves to pernicious nonsense, it makes it harder to understand what’s really going on.

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