Ruth is confused a lot of the time, most of the time. Some days she wakes up not knowing who the old man in her bed is, determined to get home to her mother and father, who must be worried. The old man in her bed is Burt, her husband of many years. She’s his girl and he can’t stand being separated from her, so he keeps her at home despite it not being what’s best for either of them at this point.
One Christmas Eve, Bridget (Hilary Swank) gets a phone call from her brother Nick (Michael Shannon). Their mother (Blythe Danner) has left home in the middle of the night and their father (Robert Forster) can’t find her. Anywhere. In California, Bridget is dealing with her own empty nest, estranged daughter, and failing marriage, but she’s been insulated from the problems with her father, who’s recently had a heart attack, and her mother, whose Alzheimer’s is only getting worse. It’s Nick who’s been dealing with them in Chicago and now he wants and needs her support in getting Ruth into a memory care facility – a suggestion he knows Ruth can’t consent to, and Burt will oppose vehemently.
What They Had is a tender movie about memory and family, and what it means to lose a loved one in increments. There’s no one in this family you can’t relate to, and it’s painful to watch them fail to unite, even in their grief. They are all, in fact, playing for the same time: each wants Ruth to be cared for. Burt think she should be cared for by the man who has spent a lifetime loving her, even though no single person can provide the round-the-clock care she requires. Nick worries that Burt caring for Ruth puts them both in danger, and is eager for professionals to take over and give him some respite. Bridget wants to avoid conflict and plays both sides, unwilling to see her mother neglected or her father alone. This is a choice that many families will face, and the film reflects our pain and reluctance so clearly it can be hard to watch.
Throuh it all, Blythe Danner shines her light. Ruth may not have her memory, or even a stable sense of self, but Danner always shows her humanity and her dignity, and even glimmers of humour and comfort. Robert Forster is wonderful, gruff and gentle, unwilling to let go of the love of his life. He is the movie’s anchor, and his family’s anchor, though not always a benevolent one. Is he a bit of a bully? Certainly he continues to treat his children like father knows best, and the dynamics are accordingly unhealthy. Bridget spins her wheels of indecision and Nick internalizes his anger. Shannon is terrific, as always, a kooky, rude, intemperate git who feels like everyone’s pain in the ass brother.
The film gives you permission to laugh. It feels uncharitable to do that with someone who has reduced capacity, but sometimes the jams Ruth gets herself into are quite funny. And sometimes they’re so egregious all you can do is laugh. Laugh or cry – and this movie will have you do both.