If talk is cheap, Jack McCall is one of the cheapest chaps around.
As a literary agent, words are Jack's business. Not that he reads many of them. The first and last five pages are all the guy needs to figure out whether the book is a best-seller or fish-wrap fodder. All the time he saves reading? He spends it talking. Talking to his lovely wife. Talking to his harried assistant. Talking to his beleaguered therapist. Talking to anyone with a working set of eardrums. And note my use of to. Because he doesn't talk with them. He talks at them.
All that practice has made Jack one of the most persuasive guys around. And now he's all set to persuade a new client—a red-hot mystical guru named Sinja—to entrust a new self-help book to Jack's agency. But in the process, Jack pricks his hand on a tree in Sinja's nature-centric compound. Before Jack can say—well, too much—an exact duplicate of the tree pops up in his own backyard. And it's losing leaves at an alarming rate.
Feeling a bit bewildered (and suffering from a case of the sniffles to boot), Jack calls Sinja over and demands to know what's up with the overgrown weed. Sinja offers an outlandish theory: It seems, somehow, that Jack and the tree have developed a psychic, linguistic bond. And the tree is keeping track of every word the guy says, dropping a leaf for each one.
"And what happens when a tree loses its leaves, Jack?"
If Jack lived in Colorado (as I do), the answer would be winter. But neither he nor Sinja are familiar with the concept, apparently, and so they come to a far more sobering conclusion: Once the tree sheds its last leaf, it'll be dead—and so will Jack.
Last words, anyone?
Jack visits his mother, who appears to have dementia. And he loves his wife, though he has a hard time showing it. But as the film opens, Jack reserves his greatest affection for himself. Everything he is and does is manifested in his constant streaming patter. So when he loses his right to speak, it forces him to re-examine both who he is and what he means to the people around him.
When he's on his last few leaves, Jack decides to use them judiciously … on the people he cares for. In the context of this strange little film, these words become sacrificial acts—ones that march him closer to his own end. But they mean the world to those he gives them to. And there's something to be (ahem) said for that.
As mentioned, Sinja is some sort of pop culture guru—or, as Jack describes him, the most popular "nondenominational religious leader on the planet." His actual beliefs are a bit unclear, but they feel Eastern in origin, and they involve meditation and chanting to get in touch with your own true nature and inner divinity—"the face [you had] before your parents were born."
Jack derisively dismisses the New Age mumbo jumbo—until, of course, he's forced to deal with the tree. So before the movie ends, we see Jack read Sinja's book (a pamphlet, really), meditate and visit his own past, where he converses with his childlike self. He ultimately embraces Sinja both literally and figuratively, even if it's a little iffy whether he fully accepts the man's teachings … whatever they are.
Interestingly, the tree isn't conjured by Sinja. Though the original is located on the guru's property, he's just as mystified by it as anyone else. He tells Jack that he once heard about a case where man and tree bonded like this, and the man became a revered holy figure. When Jack exclaims Christ's name as an expletive, Sinja responds, "No, his name was Stan."
When Sinja offers advice to Jack, it sounds a lot like the sort of thing we'd hear from any competent shrink or pastor: Resolve your past issues. Make amends with the people you love. Show them—don't just tell them—how much they mean to you. Meanwhile, Jack tries to get into the tree's good graces through good deeds—including writing a generous check (and giving his watch) to a Catholic charity.
Someone takes to wearing white robes and beads in mimicry of Sinja—either to be pious or in hopes of using the garb to get more business.
Trying to stir up some passion between them, Jack's wife, Caroline, invites him to join her in a hotel room where she's dressed up for him in an S&M-tinged leather bikini. "The more you say, the more I'll do," she says, stripping off most of his clothes and handcuffing him. "Talk dirty to me." He does try to say a few words to explain how dire his new situation is, but they're misinterpreted and Caroline winds up suggesting they hire lawyers so they can split amicably. Then she throws him out of the room while he's wearing only boxers.
Before finding Caroline's hotel room, Jack is mistakenly sent to another room, where a man wearing a Napoleonic hat and coat—and underwear—greets Jack at the door as if he was expected. "Climb aboard," he says. Later, when Jack's going down the elevator in his undies, he rides with that same man.
Aaron, Jack's assistant, confesses that he once kissed Caroline at a party (under the influence of alcohol). He also says he and another employee sometimes engage in video-recorded "furry" sex (in which they wear costumes and pretend to be animals) in Jack's office. (There's talk of dirty animals and more dignified ones.) Jack reminds Caroline that their son was conceived on their dining room table. People vulgarly refer to male body parts. We see a gay couple at a day-care center. There's a joke about "virgin" margaritas.
Jack tries to chop down the tree, but when he thwacks it with an ax, he's thrown back and suffers a cut on his side. "Be glad you don't own a chain saw," Sinja tells him. Later, Jack smashes a bottle against it (hurting his head).
When Jack tries to rescue a cat out of a (non-psychic) tree, the cat attacks him—landing on his face and sending him (and the ladder on which he was standing) falling crashing to the ground. Jack mistakenly tells a blind man to cross the street at an inopportune time, causing chaos. A car hits Jack lightly; two vehicles smash into each other. Someone threatens to run Jack over in a parking lot.
A drunken, despondent Jack decides to kill himself by using up his remaining words singing along to a song. Aaron tries to get him to stop, and the two fight and crash into furniture before Aaron successfully knocks his boss out.
Crude or Profane Language
A Thousand Words includes at least 50 that are crude or profane. That tally includes one f-word, close to 20 s-words, nearly 10 uses of "a‑‑," one or two each of "b‑‑ch" and "b‑‑tard," two or three of "d‑‑n" and four or five of "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused a dozen times; thrice it's linked to "d‑‑n." There's one abuse of Jesus' name.
An obscene gesture Jack makes costs him two leaves. We hear "d‑‑k," "d‑‑khead" and "p‑‑ker."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Despondent over losing pretty much everything that's important to him, Jack goes on a drunken jag, eventually getting into a fight with Aaron. He also gets psychically high when the tree is sprayed with bug killer—causing him to laugh and act inappropriately at a business luncheon. People drink wine, margaritas and martinis. We hear references to schnapps, tequila and LSD.
We all know this, but it's easy to forget. They're free, after all. We worry about running out of gas or cash or patience, but words? Our consonants and vowels are inexhaustible. We spew countless combinations during the course of the day in debates and arguments and joking water cooler chatter and emails and texts. I've used more than 1,400 words in this review … and I'm not quite done yet.
Many of those words will be forgotten almost as soon as they're uttered or typed. But most of us probably have a handful of conversations locked away in our memories that we'll never forget—conversations that changed our lives. They mean something, and we should never forget their power.
A Thousand Words reminds us of the treasure that is language—the ability words have to build or destroy, to embrace or reject. Talking shouldn't be something we do when our tongues are bored. We should speak when we have something to say. James 1 instructs us to be "quick to hear" and "slow to speak." Proverbs 29:20 says, "Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him."
Unfortunately, for a film that advises us to guard our words, A Thousand Words sure seems hasty in the way it deploys them. That's a reference to its liberal use of profanity, but also the way it fouls up an intriguing theme with disjointed, sometimes downright incoherent scenes.
Final word count for this review: 1,581.