The Pitch: As another Chicago winter is greying out the city, a family is forced through one of the worst scenarios that any can be put through. Ruth (Blythe Danner), the beloved matriarch, is in the later stages of dementia and beginning to slip away. Despite this, her husband Burt (Robert Forster) refuses to let go of Ruth and put her into private care, even when she’s beginning to do things like wander out of the city in the middle of the night, hoping to catch a train back to her childhood home. Their son Nick (Michael Shannon) has shouldered the burdens of Ruth’s health and Burt’s immovability for so long that after her nighttime episode, he demands that his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) return home to help. It’s time to let go for everyone, and none of them are ready.
Our Kind of Town: What They Had is a decidedly Chicago movie in tone, and that’s not just homerism on our part. (CoS calls the dubiously named Second City its primary home.) Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko is likewise a Chicago native, and the film exudes the feel of the city in ways many filmmakers tend to miss. There’s a sardonic streak to What They Had that sets it apart from so many graver stories of late-life memory loss and the pain it causes all around it, and Chomko is deft about exploring those tragic corners with the proper emotional gravity while offsetting it with the gallows humor that such situations often create in everyday life.
There’s a wash of color that overwhelms the city right around the time of year, and Chomko wisely uses it to her advantage, painting Chicago as a space of overwhelming monochromatic buildings and snowy isolation even as the warmth and humanity of her central family radiates off the screen. For a movie that isn’t overly saccharine about the agony of watching a family member’s personality slip away, What They Had packs an emotional wallop because of how entirely authentic and honest it feels. It starts with the setting, and spreads to the film at large.
On Letting Go: A great deal of that authenticity also comes from the film’s performances, which bounce off one another with the kind of ease that great family dramas find. Shannon, himself a known understated presence in the city’s quieter bars, cuts his usual menace with the sarcastic manner of a working-class guy who’s worn himself down to the brink and can’t bring himself to admit it. Swank fits in so nimbly alongside him, as a California go-getter whose “perfect life” is beginning to wear thin, that they manage the all-too-rare feat of coming off as convincing movie siblings. Bridget is often Chomko’s proxy for the audience, as the outsider working her way back into a semi-familiar world, but Swank makes her nervously human. She’s a deeply intelligent woman who can’t think her way out of her dissatisfaction, or her family’s pain, and Swank draws out the nervous terror of not being able to solve a terrible, unsolvable problem.
But it’s the film’s central relationship that really distinguishes What They Had. Danner is marvelous as Ruth, capturing everything from her lucid episodes to her most panicked moments of confusion with a sincerity all too familiar to anybody who’s ever seen it happen in real life. She’s not entirely lost, and one of the great strokes that Chomko’s screenplay makes is its refusal to deny Ruth her autonomy because of her condition. Burt may be far too understandably myopic to see that she needs more help than any of the family can give, but he has a point when he firmly maintains that “what she needs is her home.” There are moments when Danner brings so much light back into Ruth’s mannerisms that you can see who she was long before the film began. And then, just like that, it’s gone again.
Forster, as her soulmate and self-styled caregiver, is equally as affecting in his own way. He’s the embattled heart of What They Had, a loving and devoted husband who can’t let go, and in doing so admit that the most significant relationship of his own life is over as well. There’s a grit to Burt that feels entirely earned beyond Forster’s natural charisma, a sense that he’s the kind of man who looked after Ruth the right way, decades before the story picks up. Yet as the very real possibility of moving her out begins to loom over the family’s Christmas, Forster begins to tease out the desperation behind the stubborn Midwestern posturing. Ruth is losing herself, and at this point, she’s losing a significant part of Burt with her.
The Verdict: What They Had is an indie drama of a familiar cut, delivered so well that you’ll forgive its smaller inconsistencies. By keeping the focus tight on the film’s central foursome, Chomko doesn’t allow a great deal of time for any of the film’s side stories (Nick’s committment woes, Bridget’s wandering eye, Taissa Farmiga sweating the future as Bridget’s anxious daughter), but it also keeps the film from indulging in the ensemble sprawl that stories of this nature tend to adopt, lest they disquiet the audience by keeping the focus where it must stay.
It’s painful to watch your loved ones let go, but it’s even more so to consider a future where they’ll no longer be around. What They Had is rife with anxiety about that future even as it attempts to take baby steps toward it, and it’s the rare story of aging and loss that feels honest about how people process it. While the performances are uniformly terrific, there isn’t a great deal in the way of monologuing or 11th-hour reconciliation. Chomko simply observes that life moves on, and we attempt to stay attached to the people we can as it does. This is the kind of sentimental film that audiences wait for when they derisively call movies “melodramatic,” a film of considered emotions and earnest love for the biggest faults of the people within it.
Where’s It Playing?: What They Had enters limited release on October 19th, and will expand in the following weeks.