What They Had introduces its main character Bridget (Hilary Swank) while she’s out for a run. She’s a mother and wife who finds herself having a mid-life crisis. Her issue: Bridget prefers keeping silent over starting confrontations. Faced with a tough problem, Bridget always runs away. The woman who flees problematic situations also runs. Get it? What They Had’s writer/director Elizabeth Chomko isn’t shy about peddling these types of on-the-nose metaphors. Her film is at times broad and predictable, but also heartfelt and deeply considered. While the picture spits out a few too many dramedy clichés, it also presents a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s in insightful new ways.
On Christmas eve, Ruth (Blythe Danner) crawls out of bed and wanders off into the cold Chicago night. Her husband Burt (Robert Forster) alerts their children, Nicky (Michael Shannon) and Bridget who join together in the family home to sort the incident out. Ruth’s mind has deteriorated to the point where it’s not safe keeping her at home. Burt’s weak heart can’t take the stress, but his adult children can’t manage their own lives, let alone their mother’s. A special care facility makes the most sense, but Burt won’t give up the love of his life without a fight.
What They Had is often a tough film to watch. It’s wrenching and uncomfortable and forces you to consider disturbing aspects of life you would sooner forget. And in the wrong filmmaker’s hands, this film becomes a brutal tearjerker. But what stands out is how often the beleaguered family laugh in spite of the sadness confronting them. Chomko’s astute writing sings off the veteran cast’s lips, making for some standout gallows humour.
Circumstances put these poor folks through the wringer, and all that’s left for them to do is laugh or cry. Ruth’s odd behaviour is the root of the family’s tension, and their predicament gets so unnerving that they can’t help but roll with the punches and laugh. Although it sounds inappropriate to make light of a sick family member, anyone who has stood around waiting rooms, or hunched over hospital beds for hours on end knows the cathartic power of an off-colour joke. And who else can make a tasteless joke with such curmudgeonly resolve as Michael Shannon? The moment where his character Nicky quips that he’s dead inside is worth the price of admission.
Shannon once again plays a person-shaped sack of lemons. His character Nicky is angry all the time, swears way too often, and doesn’t care about hurting people’s feelings. He’s not the gruff guy with a soft spot, he’s a gruff guy with a heart of sandpaper. At one time he may have been the most sensitive one in the family, but years spent absorbing all the pain around him soured Nicky on life. This often manifests as his snarky quips, which knock people down a peg. There isn’t an act of redemption for this legitimate asshole, he’s sour to his very core, but Shannon’s performance is endearing enough to win viewers over.
Swank can deliver dazzling performances in her sleep, and it’s a shame that Hollywood hasn’t sent more top-tier roles her way. Her talent is undeniable, and yet, I’m surprised at how much she conveys by doing so little. Bridget, a life-long runner, avoids confrontation at all cost. So often, though, she finds herself in the middle of some form of conflict. Swank’s ever so subtle performance, expresses Bridget’s state of mind without saying a word. She’s quiet, observant, and beneath her concerned face, always processing what’s said. Look hard enough, and you see her position evolve during those long silences, as she considers her options and then arrives at tough decisions. It’s the type of understated performance that flies under the radar when tastemakers construct their best-of-year lists.
What They Had brings on the feels by pummeling us with questions that have no easy answers. It’s impossible to watch this film and not put yourself in the characters’ positions – either as the sick person or their distressed caregivers. Chomko forces us to consider what it’s like to balance our own wants against our loved one’s needs. When contemplating such tough decisions most of us think we would do the right thing, but our hearts have a way of blurring the clear-cut line between right and wrong. The script takes every chance it gets to poke and prod us out of our comfort zones, before bludgeoning us with uncomfortable truths. One day, someone you love will get sick, and how you react and the sacrifices you’re willing to make offers a window to who you really are.
Even in What They Had’s most elevated and contrived moments, the storytelling still feels earnest and relatable. Chomko transforms what could be a formulaic tear-jerker into a bittersweet family drama loaded with dark humour, poignant insights, and outstanding performances.
- Release Date: 10/26/2018