FILM REVIEW – WHAT THEY HAD. With Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga. Written ańd directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference. 101 minutes.
You don’t see a lot of actorly fussing about from Robert Forster. Plainspoken and direct in a pre-Method, old Hollywood fashion, Forster is one of those rock-solid guys from another era who plants his feet and tells the truth on camera. His turn as lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is one of the great performances of the 1990s, and if Hollywood had any sense he’d have been working nonstop ever since. Indeed, the best thing about Elizabeth Chomko’s moving, occasionally awkward Alzheimer’s drama WHAT THEY HAD is that it gives Forster his meatiest role in ages.
Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, a fitness-crazed California poultry chef called home to Chicago on Christmas Eve after her dementia-addled mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) sneaks out and wanders the neighborhood in her nightie during a snowstorm. Dutiful dad Burt (a heartbreaking Forster) has been taking care of his beloved for so long he’s willfully blind to how far her disease has advanced, constantly insisting in a familiar chorus of Catholic repression that everything is fine. “Fine” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in this movie, and usually signifies that things are anything but.
Big brother Nick (Michael Shannon) runs a hipster bar downtown and currently crashes in the back room. He’s constantly quarreling with the old man, and even pulled some strings to secure a room for Ruth at the city’s nicest MemoryCare facility, but Burt won’t budge. No way is he gonna let a bunch of strangers tend to his girl, and there’s a palpable flush of fear in Forster’s eyes when we see him trying to contemplate what the hell he’d do all day without her. It was a stroke of genius casting the rough-edged Shannon as Forster’s son, as the two are seemingly incapable of false moments onscreen and they’ve got similarly hardened hides. This family really knows how to bust each other’s chops.
Considerably less compelling is Bridget’s frayed relationship with her college dropout daughter (Tessia Farmiga) and the well-meaning husband with whom she’s fallen out of love (Josh Lucas). Chomko has claimed that the film is semi-autobiographical, and I fear she’s overestimated our interest in the personal growth aspects of the story when we’d much rather be watching the frayed family dynamics play out.
The playwright-turned-filmmaker betrays her theater background by writing long sequences in which members of the ensemble enter and exit, but there’s an attention to detail here that feels lived-in and true, even when the scene structures beg credulity. Forster has a way of reading his newspaper at the dinner table that illustrates a lifetime, and Shannon’s wide, child-like grin whenever he’s able to get one over on his prodigal sister tastes like decades of resentment coming home to roost.
Danner probably has the trickiest part here, playing the majority of her scenes in a distracted fog and trying not to be a bother. There are moments when we can bask in the warm glow of Ruth’s five decades with Burt and in others we see the terrifying confusion and loneliness wrought by a horrific disease.
“What They Had” goes on for a bit longer than it probably should, piling on too many tidy resolutions when the movie’s strongest scenes are its messiest. But Chomko clearly loves these characters so much it’s hard to fault her for trying to give them all the kind of closure I imagine didn’t come so easily for their real life counterparts.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.