‘Til Death Do You Part (Film Review: “What They Had”)


A poignant drama about a devoted, elderly couple dealing with the ravages of Alzheimer’s and their adult children’s attempts to convince their father that the time has come to face an impossible decision.

SnapShot Plot

A top tier ensemble cast spotlights one family’s crisis in the fine film, What They Hadstarring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and the luminous Blythe Danner. It’s about Burt and Ruth (Forster and Danner), a devoutly Catholic couple with deep roots in their Chicago community, whose son Nick (in a typical spot on turn by Michael Shannon) feels burdened and embittered by his increasing responsibility for both parents. His sister, Bridget (in a deeply poignant turn by Hilary Swank) lives in California and can only visit sporadically, and has herself reached a crossroads in her marriage. When Nick calls late on Christmas Eve to report that Mom has slipped out of the house and can’t be found, Bridget and her troubled college age daughter (in a nuanced performance by Taissa Farmiga) hop on a plane and come straightaway to lend a hand. What emerges is a portrait of a family whose once close knit bond has been tested and strained by distance and time, with loyalties that have eroded much as has Ruth’s mind. Burt is adamant that no one will take ‘his girl’ away to a nursing home. Nick is done fighting with his father. And Bridget is caught in the middle, struggling with the decision she knows must be made while still enthralled with the depth of her parents’ love for each other, a force for all to witness despite the devastating diagnosis that is inexorably chipping away at their world.



Parting Shot

First-time writer/director Elizabeth Chomko has proven herself adept at capturing the dance of pathos and humor at the heart of any true story of family. And its such a nuanced frisson between the two which sets this film apart and makes an otherwise grim topic so watchable. Without giving it away, a prime example is a point early in the film when Nick is horrified at an inappropriate behaviour of his mother, but when he relates it to Bridget, her reaction is to laugh at the absurdity of it, which makes the scene funny. Later in the story, though, that same topic elicits a completely different reaction and is itself a turning point in the plot. Which is exactly how life is; all things are relative.

The film also exists as a parallel model of marriage, comparing the union of Burt and Ruth to that of Bridget and her husband. The devotion between the former is of course reminiscent of another beautifully portrayed marriage racked by Alzheimer’s, that of James Garner and Gena Rowlands in the Nicholas Sparks film adaptation of The Notebook. Here, though, as Burt is quick to intone, marriage is not roses and poetry; it’s about commitment and hard work and tenacity. But what Bridget understands is that the passion beneath her parents’ relationship is itself rock solid.

You may think we’ve seen enough stories about Alzheimer’s Disease, but when a film captures the collateral damage to an entire family in notes of such pathos, grace and humor, it deserves some attention.

What They Had is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kBGxsyp__o

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