In What They Had, Nick (Michael Shannon) opens with the phone call that every adult dreads: that their mother (Blythe Danner), Ruth’s dementia has caused her to wander into the night. As a result, Nick calls his sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank) and asks her to come home in an effort to convince their father Burt (Robert Forster) to begin the process of moving them into a proper senior’s facility. Struggling to hold on to his way of life, Burt is resistant, arguing that he is the best care for his wife in her time of need. As a result, Nick and Bridget must struggle to decide what’s best for their parents in their advanced age.
While it should be no surprise that a film anchored by Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank and Blythe Danner consists of strong performances, What They Had gains its true power from its authenticity. Using Bridget as the film’s emotional balance, the film accurately portrays the heartbreak and struggle that comes with having to care for one’s parents. In fact, one of the best aspects of the film is the manner in which it both affirms and challenges the voice of the elderly within the film. For every moment that Nick points out the truth that their parents’ safety is at risk, there is another which seems to justify Burt’s claim that he is still Ruth’s best caregiver. In doing so, the film manages to both honour the power of Burt and Ruth’s story while, at the same time, affirming Nick’s claim that they are unable to continue as they have.
The core of the film lies its exploration into the power of love, especially within the context of Burt and Ruth’s relationship. As Ruth continues to lose herself to her dementia, Burt’s deep love for his wife translate as her personal salvation. Although she increasingly struggles with the details of her life, his relentless commitment to her translates into the one thing that she remembers most easily. (“That’s my boyfriend,” she says repeatedly, “he’s always hanging around.”) His love for her becomes redemptive, providing her the stability that she so badly needs. (Of course, therein also lies the problem, as he also believes he is the only one capable of caring for her properly.)
More than this though, by juxtaposing Bridget’s emotional journey up against Burt and Ruth’s relationship, the film also demonstrates the power of different worldviews. Struggling through a disappointing marriage and tension with her daughter, Bridget’s view of love has been tainted, leaving her dissatisfied with life. In this way, we recognize her admiration for her parents’ marriage, which is based on ‘commitment’. The story of Burt and Ruth is one of traditional values, steeped in the beliefs of their time. Their love is the one Bridget aspires to have. However, the film is not content to simply hold Burt and Ruth’s marriage as the ‘standard’ either, questioning the relevancy of Burt’s views in today’s culture. It’s a beautiful tension that serves as a reminder that love continues to remain complicated. Although relationships look different between generations, there is much for us to learn from the values of those who have come before.
At its core, What They Had speaks to more than one family’s struggle to decide on their parents’ ability to live on their own. It’s a film about what it means to truly love someone else, through every stage of life. Featuring powerful performances by its cast, it’s a reminder of the conflict between love’s ‘butterflies’ and long-term commitment, even when your partner struggles to remember you.