Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank’s What They Had: An Alzheimer’s Story That’s Both Heartbreaking and … Funny

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Photo: Bleecker Street/Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Introducing her exquisite debut feature, What They Had, at Sundance, the writer-director Elizabeth Chomko addressed the movie’s initiating event — a woman with Alzheimer’s reaching the last-but-one stage, number six — only obliquely. Chomko painted a larger picture.

“Memory,” she said, “is a gift we’re given. I don’t want to take it for granted.” And so, in the film, the camera occasionally lingers on photos and home movies of Ruth (Blythe Danner) and her husband, Bert (Robert Forster), as they were in their 20s and 30s; and Ruth is tasked to carry a picture in a locket that can remind her, fleetingly, who the man across the table from her is.

Before I get too lachrymose, I should mention that the movie has a lot of great laughs: The characters speak their minds and then some. The main couple isn’t the old one but a pair of middle-aged siblings, Bridget (Hilary Swank), and Nicky (Michael Shannon), who call each names like “turkey” and “dingle-fairy” and whose conversations often end in shouting matches. Bridget has flown in from Los Angeles to take some of the burden off Nicky and has brought her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who’s been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking and is almost as prickly as her uncle. Nicky is being eaten alive by multiple stressors. He has poured all his money into a high-toned bar that his father has never deigned to visit. And he feels that he alone bears the responsibility for his mother’s well-being. He’s furious that Bert won’t put her in a facility for people with dementia, even after she has wandered into the snow in a nightgown and boarded a train. Bert is a stubborn cuss.

Actually, “cuss” is the exact wrong word. A devout Catholic, Bert abhors his kids’ swearing and believes it’s his duty is to care for his wife until the bitter end. Also, he adores her. The subtext (and Über-text) of What They Had is the impact of such an overbearing father on his children’s self-esteem. Bert compelled (impelled, bullied) Bridget to marry an up-and-comer she didn’t love and now can barely stand. (Seen very briefly and played by Josh Lucas, the husband seems a nice enough fellow but dull.) Bert also insists on belittling Nicky — a bar owner — by calling him a bartender. The crux of Nicky and Bridget’s arguments is that she has power of attorney over her parents but won’t stand up to them. Nicky hectors her, she squirms, Nicky hectors her, she squirms, and nothing happens.

Because nothing happens for a while doesn’t mean What They Had droops. Swank manages the difficult task of looking powerfully indecisive — i.e., animating her inaction, making you feel her inner struggle. Shannon I can’t begin to praise enough. Only last week, in a review of the war movie 12 Strong, I said he remains on pace to act in more movies than anyone ever while also doing plays, and here he is again and as good as I’ve seen him. (A tall order: He was, believe it or not, a definitive Dr. Astrov in an intimate theater production of Uncle Vanya a few years back.) His Nicky is primed to jump at his family’s criticisms, which means he seizes on those times when he can criticize back. Nicky is often hilariously rude and often just rude.

Blythe Danner has the difficult task of responding to everything and registering almost nothing. She does it beautifully, with lyricism. Perhaps there’s something romanticized about her — forgive me — blitheness. I don’t know, not having observed enough people with Alzheimer’s. I do know that the way in which she switches on a dime from a nurturing mother (greeting every new person with “There’s my baby!”) to a little girl who wants to go home is heartbreaking. Forster, meanwhile, anchors the movie. Without yelling, his Bert has a bullying power — the kind that comes from utter faith in his own rationality (not to mention the Catholic Church).

Chomko — a one-time actress and playwright — went through something similar with her own grandparents, to whom the film is dedicated. (They appear in a photograph, of course.) She does something in What They Had I’ve never seen in this kind of film: The family laughs at some of Ruth’s screwball-illogical interjections. This didn’t offend me in the least: Laughter is a coping device, and Ruth — being largely oblivious — laughs with everyone else. Those moments are always double-edged, though. There’s a wonderful bit when Nicky solemnly informs Bridget that his mother hit on him and they both go into hysterics. But later, as the film inches towards its climax, Nicky tells that to his dad, and it’s the first time we see Bert speechless, unable to process what he’s hearing. There’s raw power in Chomko’s writing, but so much scrupulousness and craft that you feel safe when the time comes to weep.

What They Had: An Alzheimer’s Tale Both Sad and … Funny