In the English language, they’re all we’re given to tell our stories. To document our lives and world. To craft new ones. Twenty-six letters to thread into words, words to string into sentences, sentences to stack into paragraphs and pages and books. Twenty-six letters to tell the world about our heart’s deepest longings, our soul’s darkest pains. Twenty-six letters to give voice to beauty and tragedy and transcendent truth.
Some people, they can turn these letters into art and song. In their hands language finds life; it’s made to crawl or run or soar. But those people—the Hemmingways, the Fitzgeralds, the Morrisons—are few indeed.
Rory Jansen wants to be one of those rarities—a writer who’ll craft stories to love and cry over. Every night, he settles in front of his computer and tinkers with letters and words and the meaning therein, cobbling together pages and pages until, finally, a book comes about.
Truth is, it’s a pretty good book: His wife and a prospective agent or two tell him so.
But is it great? No. And in a cutthroat publishing world where it’s almost impossible for any new writer to be published—much less someone who wants to write important, personal fiction—that lack of greatness means Rory’s book probably won’t ever get a contract or find its way inside a bookstore.
It’s not the end of the world, of course. Rory still has much to be thankful for—his beautiful wife, Dora, his parents, his friends, his steady job. But he aches to be great, to write something worthwhile, something that sings.
And then one day he finds a yellowed manuscript in an old, beat-up satchel his wife bought for him in Paris. It’s a book, Rory discovers—unpublished and brilliant and beautiful. If only he could write like that, Rory thinks.
Perhaps without even understanding why, Rory sits down at his computer and begins re-typing the paragraphs he sees on the pages. He changes nothing—not one word, one comma, one misspelling. He does so innocently; he wants to feel the language through his fingers, to type those perfectly placed letters one by one.
But the next morning, Dora finds the fresh manuscript and reads it from beginning to end. When Rory comes home, she’s in tears, overwhelmed by this thing she thinks her husband has created. It’s beautiful, she tells him, full of life and depth and … him. It’s the best thing he’s ever written, and he needs to let someone else read it.
For years, Rory’s dreamed of crafting a work of art in words. He’s written millions of them. But in that moment he can’t say the three he should say, the three he needs to say—not with his wife so overwhelmed by his (imagined) talent.
Three words. It’s not mine. A simple sentence for a writer like Rory. A death sentence for his dream.
The Words is very much like those ornate Russian nesting dolls, with one story locked inside another inside another. In the end, it’s hard to really know which story is real and which is not—whether Rory, Dora and everyone else may be the product of another writer’s fertile, perhaps tortured mind.
That writer, Clay, insists there is no moral to his story, no overarching truth. But perhaps that just shows he’s not reading his own words closely enough.
By watching Rory as he lives those words, we see that the decisions we make come with consequences, even if they aren’t obvious. He sells and publishes the book—the book that’s not really his—and it succeeds beyond his wildest imaginings. But deep inside himself, he knows he’s simply not that good, and the guilt starts to tear him up.
Once he’s found out, Rory tries to make amends. He confesses to his wife and agent, asks to have his name stricken from the book and proper credit given to the original author. But it’s not enough to wipe the slate clean. “You think you can steal a man’s life and expect there to be no price to pay?” the real author rails at him. But as it turns out, that price isn’t shame or public discovery, but simply the deed itself: Rory’s greatest work was not his own, and he’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life.
But even as Rory pays the price for his success, the original author has learned to live without it—beautifully, in some ways.
The author (who’s never given a name) wrote the book in two grief-stricken weeks, scribbling out his soul on every page. When he learns that his wife accidentally left it on a train, he’s furious, and his marriage doesn’t survive.
Later, he realizes something important: “My tragedy is I loved words more than the woman who inspired me to write,” he says. He never reclaimed the magic that propelled him to write that first book, and he wonders whether he just “lost the knack.” But the author finds a sort of peace and even forgives the man who plagiarized him. He moves on, leaving his past regrets where they should be left—in the past. It’s a great message, really. For artists and writers and others who long to create something boundless and lasting, they sometimes feel compelled to sublimate everything—wife, kids, lives—to that art. But The Words tells us there’s a beauty and nobility in a life lived simply and sincerely, even if the one who lives it never sets the world afire.
In some ways, then, The Words echoes Proverbs 13:7. “One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;” we read there, “another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.” Rory, our pretender, is told, “You are everything you always wanted to be”—but he knows it’s a lie. But the original author? Not only does he have a wealth of talent, but a sense of peace—something that perhaps Rory may never experience again.
Fleeting references are made to talent being touched by God or signs being given by gods, but none of these references suggest more than a poetic interest in spirituality.
Rory and Dora writhe around, clutch and grope (while clothed) on a mattress, an apparent prelude to sex. Later, Dora distracts Rory from work with kisses. And when Rory says he needs to finish up one quick thing, Dora walks away, then turns back and jokingly says, “You’re missing out,” shaking her rear. “Finished,” Rory says, shutting his computer down and following her. They kiss, cuddle and lie together.
We also see the original author engaged in a great deal of kissing and sensuous activity with his future wife, Celia. At one juncture, the man starts removing her dress (revealing a snippet of undergarment).
Both of these couples live together before getting married.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that Clay has separated from his longtime wife. A young, pretty graduate student attends one of his readings, apparently with the goal of seducing him. While there’s some uncertainty as to whether Clay finally accepts the student’s advances—and more uncertainty about what’s real and what’s fiction—the end of the movie suggests that he still clings to the idea of he and his wife reconciling.
Stationed in France during the waning days of World War II, the unnamed author sees a dead man on a stretcher. The man’s body, except part of his charred hand and arm, is covered by a sheet.
A guy throws a typewriter and some books around. A woman slaps a man. A girl dies. (We see the grieving parents.) An old man is buried. (We see the open grave site.)
One f-word and about a half-dozen s-words. We also hear such words as “a‑‑” and “h‑‑‑.” God’s name is misused seven or eight times—half along with “d‑‑n.”
People drink wine, champagne and martinis. The original author, both as a young and old man, smokes constantly, and the film insinuates that the habit may have eventually killed him. He coughs hoarsely, and his medicine cabinet is full of drugs.
The author helped clean out sewers underneath Paris, and we see him and his crew hard at work in the muck. Some of the sewage splatters down on them.
In an age of glowing screens when few of us read anything much longer than this review, it’s hard to remember or envision a time when words were all we had to move us.
It’s not like people aren’t writing anymore. There are loads of great writers out there, cranking out impressive and sometimes even “important” works of literature. But those important works aren’t that widely read, which begs the question how important such books can really be. In 2007, about 25% of the U.S. populace didn’t read a single book (according to an AP/Ipsos poll), and given the amount of distractions in our techno-driven lives, I imagine that number may be rising. When we do read, many of us gravitate toward practical nonfiction. Many of us just don’t have the time to read stories as we used to or we’d like to. And, I think, many of us miss it.
As such, I wonder whether The Words serves as a sort of aspirational fantasy: It reminds us of a world where words do matter—where we can be moved and enriched by 26 letters strung together in unexpected, beautiful ways.
But there’s a deeper message to the movie. It’s not just words on the page that matter: The words we say or don’t say, the decisions we make, they matter too.
Rory is a passive protagonist—a man who didn’t so much lie as simply fail to tell the truth. He let himself be swept up in a momentarily welcome whirlwind without thinking where it would take him or what it would cost. And while few of us have plagiarized whole books, I think many of us are guilty of similar acts of negligence: It’s easy in these harried days to be swept up and carried away to places we had no intention of going. Sometimes we forget that we are masters of our own destinies—that it’s up to us to pause the whirlwind and make decisions every day that honor God as they shape the lives we want to live.
The Words asks us to consider the decisions Rory has made, and in so doing asks us about our own choices. Have we been honest and honorable? Have we lived lives worth living—not in terms of our achievement, but for the people around us? Are we grappling with the fundamental concepts of meaning? Indeed, there’s only one area the film fails to probe with such deep, meaningful questions: the choices its makers made about the content it includes, profanity and sensuality at the fore.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.