What They Had
Repetition in film fascinates me. I love seeing emerging patterns and repeated phrases as a way for filmmakers to call our attention to certain details. I wish I had the foresight to count the number of times the word “fine” is said during What They Had, because they are most certainly not fine.
The film begins with Ruth (Blythe Danner) putting on her shoes and lipstick and taking off down the street. Mind you, it’s the middle of the night, it’s snowing, and she’s still in her nightgown, but off she goes. This sets the wheels in motion for her family to panic, as she goes completely missing and is not well. Ruth is suffering from dementia, and doesn’t always know who she is or where she is. At the late stages of the disease, she tends to act on childlike impulses or long-unnecessary instincts, because all logic and familiarity are gone. Ruth’s adoring husband, Burt (Robert Forster), calls his son, Nick (Michael Shannon), for help. Nick then reaches out to Bridget (Hilary Swank) against his father’s wishes. Bridget flies into Chicago with daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) in tow to support the family and help find mom. As soon as Bridget arrives, mom is found, and the family settles in for a tense reunion.
The major force of What They Had is the discussion of what to do with Ruth. Nick is tired of dealing with Burt’s denial of the severity of the situation, but Nick also has all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer when it comes to dealing with people. Burt is, in fact, in deep denial, but is also making Ruth worse by not getting her treatment and keeping her around for his own selfish reasons. Bridget just wants everyone to get along, and becomes completely spineless at the mere hint of familial conflict. This central struggle would have been enough to carry the entire film, but other factors are added haphazardly.
Nick owns a bar, which his father has never stepped foot in. Bridget is struggling with Emma’s future and her lack of focus on her studies. Bridget is also unhappy with her marriage, but is unwilling to let her husband know that. Each of these factors comes to a head in its own, essentially standalone scenes. Notably, when Bridget faces her demons regarding her marriage, she acts wildly different than her character would have usually acted, which makes her more difficult to empathize with later on. It’s not portrayed as a woman going through a crisis and flailing, but rather just a weird thing she does for no real reason. This makes her predictable character unpredictable, in an alienating manner.
Also, despite the serious medical problem Ruth has, she always seems happy, if not a little confused. Even as things with the rest of the family get dark, she keeps them all amused and never seems too scared or worried. This lack of any actual stakes for Ruth feels disingenuous and falsely comforting. It’s as if the sickest person in the family is having the easiest time. Everyone around her is entitled to feel pain, except Ruth.
Given the inconsistent plot and the unengaging illness, all of the performances are excellent in What They Had. This is an amazing cast, and each of them fully commits to what they’re given. I just wish they were given more.
What They Had feels like a timely film, given the aging population in America, and will likely strike a nerve with people who are struggling with elder care issues in their own families. However, the unrelatable characters and erratic story stop it just short of being universally approachable.