I’m going to put this up here right now, loud and proud:
So yeah, as noted above, this post will contain major spoilers for the movie The Words, so if you haven’t seen it and are planning to, this is not a post for you. If you aren’t sure if you’ll see it, I’ll give you my review right now: I strongly recommend it. Go see it. Now. And then come back here and read this post.
With that out of the way, I’ll get to the post itself. The Words is a pretty fantastically crafted drama, which contains a full three (3!!!) storylines. The first, overarching story centers around Dennis Quaid, who plays an author reading parts of his new book at an event of some sort. Olivia Wilde plays a student in the audience who is fascinated by Quaid and his story — to the extent that she’s basically a stalker and knows everything about him. Quaid’s story is about a struggling writer, Bradley Cooper, who finds a manuscript in an antique briefcase in Paris and becomes so enamored with it that he decides to retype it word for word. Of course, nothing good can come of that; his wife reads it, and without knowing he didn’t write it, makes him show it to an agent, who loves it, fame and fortune ensues, etc. But then Cooper meets an old man, Jeremy Irons, — who, as it turns out, is the original author of the book. And so he tells his story, which takes us back to post-WWII Paris.
Irons’ tale is heartrending, to say the least. While stationed in France, he falls in love with a woman; after he is relieved of duty, he moves back to Paris to be with her. They get married, and eventually have a daughter. But of course tragedy ensues; their baby dies shortly after birth, the wife becomes despondent and goes back to her mother’s house, while Irons (though not played by him, since it is all a flashback, after all) is left to deal with things in his own way. And so he writes, and in two weeks completes what is apparently one of the greatest books ever written. He visits his wife and leaves the book with her, but when she returns, she accidentally forgets the briefcase on the train.
You can probably see how Bradley Cooper ended up with it now, yes?
Anyway, this accident tore their marriage apart, the revelation eats at Cooper, and lots of things happen. But I won’t reveal all of it, because it’s not the most interesting part.
The most interesting part, as it turns out, actually comes towards the end of the movie — when Quaid is at his apartment with Olivia Wilde telling her the rest of the story. When he gets to the end of Cooper’s tale, she calls bullshit and goes into a pretty powerful diatribe of what she thinks happens. And there are two key moments here. First, Quaid says “What if there was no old man, what if I made it all up?” And later he says “You have to pick between fiction and reality,” which in turn leads to Olivia Wilde having a striking revelation: “You never let her go, did you?” Sounds innocuous, at first, but let’s look deeper.
By this time, we know that Quaid is separated from his wife, and most viewers will probably have drawn some connection between Quaid and Cooper — such as, perhaps Cooper IS Quaid, and the story is autobiographical. But what fits best is this brilliant deduction, for which all credit goes to my dear mother: Quaid wasn’t just saying things when he said there was no old man. There wasn’t really an old man at all. And the story about Cooper’s character was entirely made up. What it seems really happened is that Quaid had a wife, and they had a daughter, and the daughter died in infancy — this explains Wilde’s observation. The “her” isn’t Quaid’s estranged wife, but his departed daughter. He created a whole convoluted tale about plagiarism and an old man who had essentially lived Quaid’s reality, all so that he could divorce himself from the reality he was living in, but couldn’t face. “You have to pick between fiction and reality,” he says. But the tragedy, it seems, is that he chose fiction. He chose to identify with Cooper’s character, because for Cooper, things turn out okay in the end. But for the old man, life is a cold, bitter place, with nothing but death ahead and sorrow behind. And though Quaid may try to convince himself that the story of his life happened to someone else, he has never been able to let the past go.
And that, dear readers, is why The Words is one of the best and most intelligent films released in the past few years.
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