The Words is a visually and thematically rich exploration of the power of choices to powerfully alter the trajectory of our lives.
The way we respond to many of these choices results in nothing more damaging than choosing bacon and eggs over pancakes for an occasional indulgent weekend brunch or picking the red Tshirt over the blue when we venture to the weekend markets.
But as this movie graphically underlines, some choices have a defining impact on who we are, what we become and how we will affect the lives of those around us.
In three interlocking stories, which fit together like literary Babushka nesting dolls, The Words, which was written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, makes it clear that there are no such things as consequence-free decisions, no matter how big or small the choices are.
For each of the characters in this movie, the choices are decidedly big, and their consequences great and long-lasting, or at least they have the potential to be.
The movie opens rather grandly with a public reading of a new book, titled appropriately enough The Words, by acclaimed author Clayton Hammond, who has gained all the literary fame and fortune a man could desire but seems weighed down by what he has achieved, rather than enlivened by it.
Even when he is reading out passages from the book, to a rapt and appreciative audience, which includes graduate student Daniella who, it’s clear from the word go, has more on her mind than admiring Clayton’s dexterous way with words, there is a world-weariness that seeps into very syllable, every exquisitely worded sentence.
He only truly comes alive when Daniella, who describes herself as “young, spoiled, impetuous and American” comes on to him with all the subtlety of a freight train, and back at his place over a vintage Bordeaux, demands to know what happens in the rest of the book.
Enthralled by this intellectual beauty, he almost tips over the precipice into sleeping with her, aware all the time however that her attention is not driven by a genuine interest in him as a person but rather what she can gain from being with him.
He admits as much when he stops before a mirror, just prior to ascending the stairs to where Daniella awaits, wine and glasses in hand, and sighs heavily as he surveys the ennui-scorched man staring back at him.
Whatever he decides, consciously or otherwise, at this point colours the succeeding conversation with Daniella when he asks her why someone so pretty and accomplished would want to be a writer?
“You should know that words ruin everything,” he says playfully but knowingly, but his warning is dismissed with a laugh and Daniella recommences her coquettish dance which ultimately leads her nowhere.
Or at least not where she wanted to go.
The central character in Clayton’s book, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) faces choices too, but of an even greater magnitude than that of his creator.
A struggling writer, who has spent years living in a small one bedroom loft with his devoted girlfriend then wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) in New York working on his craft in favour of paid employment, he becomes increasingly dispirited as he fails to find a publisher for his novels.
Forced to take a day job as a mailroom worker at a publishing house, he faces an existential crisis of epic proportions, which is given voice one night as he despairingly declares to Dora that he doesn’t who he is if he’s not a writer.
With so much at stake, in Rory’s mind at least (so focused is he on his goals that he fails to keep in mind that his actions affect Dora too), he contemplates doing the previously unthinkable when he presents an emotionally-charged manuscript, which he finds in a briefcase his wife buys him as a gift, as his own.
Admittedly he makes this choice after a reasonable amount of resistance on his part but the fact remains that when faced with a choice to either perpetrate a fraud, or continue to try to sell his own novels with no guarantee of success, he chooses the former option, driven to embrace it in part by his wife’s belief that it is his work.
The consequences are negligible at first.
Rory find immediate, spectacular success, becomes the toast of the town, and finds that he is able to get his other novels published – which let’s face it are the only ones he has actually written – even though his agent admits that they aren’t as good as his breakout hit, something Rory knows in his heart but rarely admits.
He has everything he wants, and is somehow able to quiet the nagging sensation that he is a literary charlatan.
It is obvious though that it is eating at him in his quieter moments, which fortunately for him are few and far between in his new role as a writing demigod.
This precariously balanced accommodation with his elaborately spun of deceit unravels quickly when he is approached by an old man (Jeremy Irons) who claims the novel is his, lost decades earlier by his then wife, Celia (Nora Arnezeder).
He is able to back up his claim with details that could be known only by the actual writer of the novel, and while he doesn’t demand any sort of recognition or monetary compensation – angrily turning down Rory’s offer of a cut of the novel’s proceeds – he does make it clear that Rory must listen to the story of his life, and by so doing, in some way validate the story of his life and the choices he made by simply.
So Rory dutifully listens, too shaken to do otherwise, as the Old Man recounts finding the love of his life in France in the aftermath of World War Two, and then losing her, and the novel through a series of tragic events, which trigger decisions that have lifelong consequences.
While philosophical about the choices he has made, his regret is obvious:
“My tragedy is that I chose the words over the woman who inspired them.”
His story told, he and Rory part with the young writer’s parting words being what the Old Man clearly needed to hear:
“Sir, I really do like your story.”
Nodding, the Old Man who lost so much through decisions that at the time seemed sensible, but were revealed in the passage of time to be fatally flawed, shuffles off and out of Rory’s life, dying shortly afterwards, essentially letting Rory off the hook.
If only the young writer’s conscience was so forgiving.
The Words brings all three stories together with elegant ease, each leading into the next and back again, and all reinforcing and finding commonality in the other .
This is visually reinforced by all three men being shown in almost identical poses with the ones they love, or could at least make love to in the case of Clayton, all burdened with the knowledge that the choices they have made have had profound effects on their lives.
While not a morality tale as such, The Words powerfully underlines through a taut but languorously unfolding script, and stellar performances by all concerned, what lies in wait each and every time a potentially life-altering decision comes our way.