After Ruth (Blythe Danner) wanders into a snow storm in the middle of the night, her family are confronted with the possibility that her Alzheimer’s is getting worse. Ruth’s son Nicky (Michael Shannon) persuades his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) to come home and convince their father Norbert (Robert Forster) that Ruth needs to go into a nursing home. However, Norbert doesn’t want to give up their life together – even if there are days when Ruth barely recognises him.
If ‘What They Had’ sounds harrowing from the summary above, that’s because it is. The film is relentlessly sad, and wearisome. It’s not necessarily a bad film. It’s just hard to watch. Moreover, one is considerate of the fact for people with loved ones in similar circumstances, it will be especially hard hitting. Would anyone who has gone through or is going through that experience really want to relive it through watching a movie on the subject matter?
‘What They Had’ marks Elizabeth Chomko’s feature film debut and having come from a background in playwrighting, you can see a theatrical influence in the way she directs actors and stages scenes. As the dementia-suffering Ruth, Blythe Danner – who most people will recognise from ‘Meet the Parents’ and its sequels – is nothing short of phenomenal. Your heart pours out for her because you believe so readily that she is suffering from this condition. Swank and Forster are superb, as always, but Michael Shannon is a tour de force. His character, Nicky, has an appealing dry sense of humour. He is also the one most rooted by the seriousness and gravity of their family’s situation.
The humorous moments of ‘What They Had’ are based around the anti-social things Ruth does arising from her illness, such as hitting on Nicky and flipping someone else in church. However, while you can understand the family’s need for relief through laughter when such things happen, it doesn’t feel right to laugh at these moments from the outside. There are a number of small but significant moments that break your heart, such as the Christmas presents Bridget finds that Norbert has wrapped and labelled from him to Ruth and from Ruth to him. Norbert’s love and commitment to his wife are undeniable and like ‘The Notebook’ or ‘Up’, don’t be surprised if the love between this elderly couple gets you weepy.
As indicated a few times at this stage, ‘What They Had’ is upsetting and painful to watch. While you can’t really say there’s much wrong with the film, there’s nothing extraordinary about it either. Above all, the rating above reflects how ‘What They Had’ is such a downer of a movie that it’s next to impossible to recommend.