'What They Had' Review: Michael Shannon Dominates A Pleasant, If Unremarkable, Debut Feature [TIFF]

Alzheimer's, estranged family, life lessons, Hilary Swank – just add a free space and you've gotten a winning card in prestige drama card bingo! And yet, in that incalculably magic way that movies can achieve, What They Had manages to come out to something more than the sum of its imperfect parts. The film, written and directed by newcomer Elizabeth Chomko, often feels like the first feature that it is. But with some help from a crack team of actors as well as her own reservoir of compassion, she steers the film confidently through some turbulent waters.

Swank stars as Bridget Ertz, a woman who has willed herself into denial about just how far she has drifted apart from all the meaningful connections in her life. She barely acknowledges her husband Eddie, a modest if impassionate man played Josh Lucas who, all too fittingly, exists only as an abstraction until the final act of the film. Her daughter, Taissa Farmiga's rudderless Emma, teeters on the verge of becoming a college dropout. And her parents, comfortably distant in their Chicago retirement, are more of a legal than a moral responsibility.

By keeping herself busy and always playing the part of the responsible adult, Bridget manages to hide just how empty her life has become. While she might think that because she's the glue holding the family together, she's strong, the events of What They Had serve to show her otherwise. Swank, whose two Academy Award wins by the age of 30 now serve more as an albatross than a badge of distinction in the court of public opinion, never lets the chip on her shoulder show (should it even exist). She rarely shows Bridget's unease but always makes it felt. Swank avoids the kind of loud, showy display of middle-aged malaise that often plague films of this ilk, instead letting her resentment fester underneath a veneer of calm.

Her achievement is all the more impressive considering the fallout from the film's inciting event, her mother Ruth's (Blythe Danner) dementia progressing to a point where additional safeguards are required to keep her out of harm's way. The new development requires Bridget to get off the bench and into the game, engaging with a messy family situation that has only progressed to a more precarious place thanks to her inaction and inattentiveness. What follows once she arrives in Chicago can feel a bit like a parade of arguments. Bridget's presence sets off scene after scene of confrontation and conversation that brings years of simmering tensions to a full boil. There's resentment over her mom's careerism, disappointment in her brother Nicky's (Michael Shannon) tangible career success and the divide between whether Bridget settled with her life or hit the jackpot.

Chomko comes from the world of playwriting, and the influence of that background shows in What They Had for better and worse. There's a welcome economy to her storytelling that keeps everything moving at a purposeful pace. She shows us what we need to see and little more, never littering the film with superfluous characters or throwaway dialogue to better establish the people Chomko does invest in. The film homes in on the specific and the significant, although sometimes doing so with the side effect of letting these explosive moments define the characters.

The longer the film goes on, however, the more evident it becomes that Michael Shannon's Nicky serves as the real center of gravity. Shannon has built his career from playing characters at the extremes, from Revolutionary Road to The Shape of Water and, yes, the insane DG sorority letter. Yet for all his prolific output, we rarely get to see the actor play normal humans who are not such pure distillations of an emotion or a theme. What They Had allows him to showcase a gentler man left to navigate a minefield of self-doubt, bitterness and familial duty. Nicky is the heart of the film, and his tremendous pathos left me clamoring to see Shannon in more grounded roles such as this one.

Though the matriarch's illness is the springboard for all the events of the film, most of the drama comes from the tension between the children and their father Burt (Robert Forster), a stubbornly devoted man who asserts he is the best memory care for his declining wife. Blythe Danner's Ruth takes a backseat in the narrative, never served by the script as well as she has been in her recent late-career renaissance. She mostly serves as a bit of comic relief, bringing some welcome levity to otherwise heavy conversations. Uncomfortably, however, Ruth and her illness occasionally become the butt of the joke. Trace back the root of many humorous moments in What They Had, and the punchline boils down to "it's funny because she has Alzheimer's."

Danner is far from the worst served in the film, a distinction reserved for Taissa Farmiga's Emma. Chomko relegates the young character to a perfunctory presence once she gets in her big emotional moment at about the halfway mark. It's an effective verbal brawl, and Emma lands more than a few punches on her clueless mother. But the moment dissipates quickly, and What They Had proceeds largely as if the scene did not occur.

Thankfully, this moment is one of the few false notes Chomko hits in her freshman feature. What They Had mostly brims over with empathic lessons gained from intense family dialogue. The road to the ultimate destination is messy, partly from filmmaking and partly from the nature of life itself. But the emotional effect lingers, particularly when it comes to any part of the film involving Michael Shannon's tender performance.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10