Much hyped, this film features strong outdoor cinematography and one of Robert Redford’s rare recent screen appearances, but An Unfinished Life suffers from an unfinished script. Granted, it lacks neither plot nor conclusion, but both required significant revision. You’ll find some strong performances and a few fine moments, but a far better film hides in this material, one I wish they had made.
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writers: Mark Spragg, Virginia Korus Spragg
Robert Redford as Einar Gilkyson
Jennifer Lopez as Jean Gilkyson
Morgan Freeman as Mitch Bradley
Becca Gardner as Griff Gilkyson
Josh Lucas as Crane Curtis
Damian Lewis as Gary Watson
Camryn Manheim as Nina
Bart the Bear as the bear.
Released: September 2005.
Set in Marion, Iowa, but filmed in British Columbia.
Widow Jean and her daughter Griff leave Gary, her abusive boyfriend, and return to Jean’s hometown. She’s not been there for years, not since her husband died in a car accident. Jean had been driving. Her father-in-law, grizzled Einar has never forgiven her. She has not told him that she was pregnant at the time of the accident, and that he has a granddaughter.
Becca Gardner, whose only previous credits are an episode of The Practice and the low-budget thriller, Whatever Happened to Alice, gives an extraordinary, understated performance as Griff. She quietly steals scenes from veteran actors, and may well grow into a major star. The dynamic between Gardner and Redford works well.
Einar is a cowboy, a living relic who embodies the best of the old school man’s man, but he's marked with the emotional distance generally found in the breed. He has his closest relationship with Mitch Bradley, a farm hand who was mauled by a bear. Einar blames himself because he could not save his old friend from injury. The two play off each other perfectly, and provide several of the film’s highlights and laughs. While not the gay cowboy partners Griff initially believes them to be (that’s another 2005 film), they act like a tough, elderly married couple, hiding deep feelings with gruff bickering. Even when the dialogue rides far into Hallmark and Oscar Clip territory, they can usually make it work.
GARY: (staring down Einar’s gun) You’ve seen too many westerns, old man.
EINAR: That doesn’t exactly work in your favour.
J-Lo gives an adequate performance as Jean, but she’s miscast. Her Jean lacks the reality of the other principal characters. Even bruised and battered, she’s too much varnish in a film that’s trying, initially, to feel authentic. She doesn’t fit with the weather-beaten buildings and rural Rocky Mountain ways. It’s a minor point; the script goes awry (and Hollywood) on too many other, more serious matters.
Gary, Jean’s boyfriend, has no real character at all. We see the basic elements of the classic abusive spouse: he beats her, he regrets his actions, he obsesses when he loses her. The film never develops him beyond that, and he functions entirely as a plot device, turning up whenever the movie needs him, notching up his violence to the level required and then skulking away.
The bear plot initially proves interesting, because it creates character drama from the fact that rural people have to deal with wild animals. That plot takes a terrific wrong turn when Mitch asks Einar to free the animal from its undersized cage in town. Man of action though Einar is, he would never agree to this, and he certainly wouldn’t put his granddaughter in danger over a fool’s errand. The Einar they’ve shown us would know (among other things) just how stupid and dangerous it is release a bear that has adjusted to humans and human food near a populated area. Bart the Bear, it must be noted, creates a palpable sense of menace. Of course, he is a bear.
We have solid principal characters and obvious themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. The film needed realistic conflicts through which the various broken relationships could be repaired. Instead, An Unfinished Life gives us a movie-of-the-week villain and a Walt Disney animal rescue. It still managed to hold my interest, only to lose me at its conclusion. Hokey though the film could be, the cliché-ridden scripting and direction of the final sequence still took me by surprise. I found myself wondering if the writers and director had traded off with someone whose only experience involved soap operas and lifestyle ads.
I wouldn’t recommend catching the film’s first run, unless you really like weathered scenery or you’re a talent scout sizing up young Gardner. If it comes your way cheaply—- at a second-run theatre, on the video store shelves, or as a movie-of-the-week—- you might find enough here to make it worthwhile.