Imagine waking up from a wicked dream that you can barely remember, but can’t stop thinking about. You sit up in bed, take a sip of water, and try to piece together the events from it as best as you can. A lot of the details are fuzzy, though, and you struggle to remember what it was about. It’s like flashing a light down a dark tunnel only to have the batteries run out. That to me is Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2014, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland delivered Still Alice, with Julianne Moore starring as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who slowly succumbs to the progressive disease. The blunt force of the script and Oscar-winning performance from Moore matched the ruthlessness of the disease, giving the viewer a full-bodied perspective of someone afflicted by it: How one can lose everything they hold dear to their hearts. The film was praised due to its ability to tackle not only the dementia suffered, but its overall effect on a household.
Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had gives you the other side of the battle: The family members who have to make the tough and lose-lose choices as Alzheimer’s rips through the tight knots that were once tied around a house of love. Chomko’s film is an honest tribute that will make you cry, call your parents, and share stories about the hardest punches life has to offer. When you handle something with care, this is the result: A film that knocks you down and makes you reflect on what you take for granted.
Ruth (Blythe Danner) is a sweet lady when your eyes first set on her, but she’s a little too old to be sneaking out of her suburban Chicago condo in the middle of the night. She gets up, puts on socks and shoes, and heads out into the night with a heavy snow falling on the ground. Poor Burt (Robert Forster) calls his son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), and they go looking for it. By morning, she is found, and all is well. However, it will soon repeat.
Ruth suffers from Stage 6 of Alzheimer’s disease, which means she is closer to forgetting everything that once held her together, including her husband and kids. Things get so bad that Nicky calls his sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank), to fly across the country to help with Ruth. Bridget brings her troublesome daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), along with a bevy of problems few people know about or she would like to acknowledge.
What They Know is about finding a way to do the right thing for yourself and the ones you love-and how hard it is to find that common ground between your heart and soul. The girth of the film centers around a dilemma facing the family. They have two choices: ride out the storm and fight all the vicious waves that the disease will bring to its doorstep, or place Ruth in a home where she can receive the best care and preserve the sanity within the family.
It’s not groundbreaking news to tell you everyone doesn’t agree on a plan. I won’t say more about the plot, but I will admit this: this film will take a piece out of you, and it’s due to the cast and the simplistic yet effective direction.
I can’t say enough about Forster. He takes this film and throws it on his shoulders, playing a guy who is squinting extra hard to recognize the woman he fell in love with 55 years ago. It’s not an over-the-top performance, but one that is stuffed with passion and direction. Forster has the juiciest lines here, and doesn’t waste them. Whether it’s shouting at Bridget to make better choices in her life or defending the need to keep his wife close to Nicky, Forster delivers powerful work. He’s an Oscar candidate in my eyes. A standout in a strong cast.
Shannon plays it straighter than usual as a man trying to recover what’s left of his own life through the right care for his mother. Nicky owns a good-looking bar, but is about to lose the woman of his dreams due to the large chunk of his life spent caring for his mother and fighting with his father. Whatever the actor plays, you believe him. He’s the Christopher Walken of our era, a guy who tirelessly works yet never manipulates your judgement.
Swank doesn’t have much to do for the first two acts of the film, yet gets to serve up some whoppers in the climax and rescue her performance from “okay, moving on” status. Bridget holds power of attorney, but doesn’t have the guts to make the big decision. The two-time Oscar winner can do this role in her sleep, which may be why I was left underwhelmed.
Danner is such a gifted performer that she doesn’t have to try hard in her roles. Akin to Robert Redford in this month’s The Old Man & the Gun, Danner plays the vital part with the grace of a veteran who knows what buttons to push and when to stand back. She’s a supporting character here, but you never doubt her on screen.
What They Had moves in mysterious ways, tossing the audience some wise misdirection late in the film that made the resolution a little more weight in poignancy. You’ll appreciate the restraint shown and the force this movie provides.
Chomko reminds you here that Alzheimer’s disease attacks not only the afflicted soul, yet can threaten the entire dynamic and fabric of a family. It’s a movie that takes a straight sprint at the material and leaves you moved and reflecting.
If you want something real and thought-provoking this month, go see What They Had.