Searching for Forgiveness in The Words

Review of The Words, Directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal


The Words is almost more a parable than a movie. The film has three interlayered stories—Clayton Hammond is an author who writes The Words, a book about Rory Jensen who finds an old book manuscript and decides to publish it as his own, only to be found later by the original author, “The Old Man”, who has his own tragic story to tell about how he ended up writing the book. Despite this possibly confusing story within a story within a story, The Words is simply about moving on from our mistakes.

Hammond’s book, though considered fiction, is autobiographical and he supposedly plagiarized the book that first made him famous as a novelist, or at least this is what happened to Rory. Rory and his wife Dora go to France on their honeymoon, where Dora buys her new husband an antique leather bag. Rory is an aspiring writer, but the publishers reject the novel he has been working on for years.

It is at this time that Rory stumbles upon the manuscript hidden in the leather bag. He decides to submit the manuscript as his own novel and becomes a successful author. After this seminal work is published, Rory’s other novels are also published.

Then one day The Old Man finds him and reveals his identity as the original author.  The Old Man also tells Rory how the book was written in the midst of tragedy—his child died as an infant and left his relationship with his wife in ruins. Rory is burdened by guilt and tells his wife and his publisher the truth, leaving his wife feeling betrayed and his publisher in a moral quandary. The publisher convinces Rory to offer to pay The Old Man all the money he made from the book instead of making a public confession of plagiarism, but The Old Man refuses to take the money and tells Rory to move on in life just as he did after his wife left him.

The message of the film—whether it is actually wise or even possible to move on from our mistakes—is left unclear. The Old Man doesn’t seem to have had a very fulfilling life after the divorce and Rory’s narrative does not continue after his encounter with The Old Man. The most decisive explanation may be the closing scene. Hammond is asked what he really wants, and there is a flashback to a scene where Rory asks Dora to forgive him (we are not told if Rory actually ends up moving on without forgiveness, or is forgiven, or lives the rest of his life, like Hammond, with regret).

Perhaps this ambiguity in the central message is a directorial move, leaving the first story (Hammond) clearly in favor of the need for forgiveness; the second story (Rory) ambiguous since we don’t know the rest of the story since Hammond, the author, leaves it hanging; and the third story, The Old Man, is in favor of moving on and letting go of the past.

Although I didn’t personally enjoy the film and wouldn’t recommend it to friends, the redeemable part of The Words is the exploration of the question of mistakes. The language of “mistake” makes it more excusable, as opposed to harsher words such as “sin,” having less weightiness and an almost accidental ring that lends itself to empathy. But Hammond recognizes the weightiness and longs for forgiveness. This longing reflects the way we are wired as human beings, looking to find a way to assuage our guilt incurred by our faults.

What’s troubling about the message of moving beyond our mistakes is that it lies about God.  To bury our mistakes requires forgiveness. This is something that Hammond recognized he needed, and we all need it too, despite what The Old Men of the world may say.

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