Film Review: What They Had

The inestimable and chronically mis- or under-used Robert Forster does it again—swipes a flick from the entry level of a supporting character. He rules not only the roost here but pretty much the whole film, which debuting writer-director Elizabeth Chomko
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Robert Forster’s half-century before the cameras comes down to a well-placed series of second-wind comebacks. He arrived in films—on horseback, buck-naked—the lust object of Marlon Brando in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye.

But it was a ride that took him nowhere for half his career. Then, Quentin Tarantino returned him to prominence in, of all things, a Pam Grier blaxploitation film: 1997’s Jackie Brown. He played a noirhero Bogart and Mitchum would have killed for—a tough-nut bail-bondsman—and he played it so well he nailed an Oscar nomination.

He deserved another for playing the testy grandpa who pops an uncensored teen on the snout in Alexander Payne’s 2011 The Descendants. It was the kind of cranky character Elizabeth Chomko wanted to see much more of—so she wrote an entire film for him to sling around. This he does with his customary bluntness and rough-hewn authority, playing basically a fictional facsimile of Chomko’s own father—an ex-military man reduced, rightly or wrongly, to bossing his own family around.

What They Had (poignant title, that) is some homefront turbulence that actress Chomko experienced firsthand—as most of us have, or will—before she wrote it. That personal perspective gives the newbie filmmaker uncommon, unquestioned confidence that results in a film filled with spot-on performances.

Blythe Danner’s Ruth, adrift in dementia, is the problem at hand. Right off, on Christmas Eve, she slips out of the house and away from husband Forster’s diligent watch to take on a blinding Chicago snowstorm in her nightie. Miraculously retrieved and hospitalized, she has triggered a three-generation clan-gathering to debate the fate of this misremembering mama. There are a variety of opinions on it, providing most of the fodder and friction for the film.

With less to work with than previous movie Alzheimer’s cases—Judi Dench’s Iris, Julianne Moore’s Still Alice, Julie Christie’s Away From Herare still the teetering triumvirate—Danner nevertheless maximizes what she’s got. Always an intelligent presence onscreen, she saddens and sometimes shocks us with her sharp turns—flipping the finger to church parishioners, introducing her husband to their daughter, announcing a very late-in-life pregnancy. When asked point blank who Forster’s Burt is, she beams proudly, “My boyfriend!” He takes that as a yes and says, “See!.

There are a lot of jarring moments like these. But, in her last scene, Chomko allows Danner a moment of heart-aching lucidity. It, too, is an award-worthy performance.

The nominal stars (and, indeed, executive producers) of the film are Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as siblings Bridget and Nick. Here, again, is where Forster wins. Physically, they both look like they could conceivably be his offspring, and the father-son bullhead-buttings make the inevitable collision of Mama solutions rather balanced.

Burt is knee-deep in denial, trying to preserve the status quo, suggesting that wintering in Florida will get everything back on track. Doubting this, Nick shops around locally for a safer harbor for his mom.

While Nick has stayed in Chicago to tend bar and wrangle family emergencies, Bridget is the one who got away—all the way to California and a dead-on-its-feet marriage, which has produced two estranged daughters, one of whom (Taissa Farmiga) accompanies Bridget to the Chicago summit.

But the dominant performance throughout remains Forster’s. He’ssuch a hard-charging engine that he reduces everyone within his earshot to a reactive mode.

Sprinkled about the picture is raw, rickety home-movie footage, taken by Chomko’s grandfather and only slightly enhanced by her—a visual testament to what they had.