Jennifer Lopez as Jean Gilkyson
Robert Redford as Einar Gilkyson
Morgan Freeman as Mitch
Josh Lucas as Crane
Damian Lewis as Gary
Becca Gardner as Griff Gilkyson
Lynda Boyd as Kitty
R. Nelson Brown as Rancher Kent
Sean J. Dory as Drunk Cowboy
Rob Hayter as Deputy Bob
P. Lynn Johnson as Shelter Supervisor
Robert Redford, Morgan Freedman and newcomer Becca Gardner are all wonderful in An Unfinished Life, a pleasant and deeply moving character study that epitomizes Hallström’s return to dramatic glory.
Einar Gilkyson (Redford) and Mitch Bradley (Freeman) are former cattle ranchers living in the wilds of Wyoming, the latter having been mauled by a grizzly bear a year earlier. Their quiet lives are disrupted when Einar’s daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) shows up on their doorstep with his granddaughter Griff, them having run away from an abusive boyfriend. Together, the four of them must learn to deal with the ghosts from their past.
After the disaster that was The Shipping News, director Lasse Hallström seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. In fact, he’d been working on two films, both to be released this year. An Unfinished Life, written by novelist Mark Spragg and his wife Virginia, was originally intended to come out last Christmas, but for some reason, was put back on the shelf by Miramax only to finally get released as part of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s transition to a Disney-free existence.
It’s not too surprising that the film was moved away from its original plan for release during Oscar season. After all, there are similar themes at work here with Shipping News–damaged people, both emotionally and physically, trying to escape their past out in the boonies. Likewise, Hallström’s latest is another character-driven drama that moves at a snail’s pace, except in this case, it really delivers on its slow build with fine performances all around that turns this into quite a lovely character piece.
The first damaged person introduced is Jennifer Lopez’s Jean, a single mother trying to escape from her abusive boyfriend with her daughter Griff. Eventually, they end up on the doorstep of the Wyoming ranch of her dead husband’s cattle wrangler father Einar, who already has his hands full taking care of his best friend Mitch, who was left with a scarred face and body after being attacked by a large bear. Both men have settled into a daily routine of Einar visiting his dead son’s grave while Mitch obsesses about the bear that recently has returned to the area. The arrival of Jean and Griff is a disruption at first, but both elder men quickly warm up to the teen girl who is eager to help with the housework. Meanwhile, Jean gets a job as a waitress in town and begins a relationship with the town sheriff, played by Josh Lucas, adding to the drama when her abusive ex-boyfriend turns up.
With such a rich plot, it’s quite amazing that it never resorts to flashbacks, something that would have made it so much easier to tell this story. Instead, you learn more about each character’s past as their present day relationships develop over the course of the film. There aren’t that many surprises or twists, since it’s known fairly early that Jean left town after the car accident that killed Einar’s son and that he still blames her for his death. She’s gotten very good at running away from problems, and not longer after she arrives, she’s moved off of Einar’s ranch, although Griff decides to stay with her grandfather, who teaches her how to drive and be a rancher.
This well-crafted drama could have easily been a stageplay, except it may have lost a lot by not having the sweeping vistas of the Wyoming plains as a backdrop, something that Hallström takes full advantage of with panoramic shots that sweep through the fields and mountains of the area. The done-in-one end credit shot is particularly impressive.
Besides having an excellent script from the Spraggs, Hallström has always been a director who can pull together an impressive cast of actors, and this is no exception. Robert Redford proves yet again why he’s one of America’s greatest living talents, playing this gruff frontiersman with all the vigor and gusto that he can muster. At first, Einar is a bit too prickly to be likeable, but you slowly get accustomed to his demeanor and Griff’s presence allows him to get over his dead son and find new happiness. Redford brings a similar charm to Einar as one might see in the hero of a Western, especially when Einar has to drive Jean’s former boyfriend, played by Damian “Band of Brothers” Lewis, out of town. Morgan Freeman is a great counterpoint to Redford bringing a similar “old married couple” as he had with Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. Every time the two actors are on screen, you wonder why it took so long to put them in a project together.
Hallström’s great discovery for this film is Becca Gardner, a young actress able to hold her own against vets like Redford and Freeman, which reminds you that Hallström also discovered Leonardo DiCaprio at such a young age. Lopez can be taken more seriously when doing drama, as opposed to light comedy, but as the characters try to reach closure, the confrontation between Jean and Einar plays as one of the film’s weakest moments. Then again, there’s also the awe-inspiring presence of the film’s animal star Bart the Bear, last seen in The Edge, who tends to steal the scenes from all three actors.
Other than that, this film can be seen a few different ways, depending on which characters you most relate to. To me, it was just a nice, agenda-free film about two elderly men waiting to finish their life out in the middle of nowhere and a teen girl who comes along and gives them reason to live.
The Bottom Line:
Hallström’s dialogue-heavy drama tends to be slow, but those who appreciate strong characters and acting to match should appreciate this pleasant character drama for what it is.