October 2023

An Unfinished Life (2005)

DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom

CAST: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Camryn Manheim, Damian Lewis


An Unfinished Life isn’t anything daring or unpredictable; it’s a familiar story, well-told. But director Lasse Hallstrom has a deft touch with these kinds of low-key, down-to-earth character pieces (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), and for those who appreciate these kinds of quiet dramas, it’s an hour-and-forty-five minutes well-spent.

Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) lives alone in rural Wyoming, his only companion his longtime close friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was half-crippled by a bear attack a year ago. Their uneventful existence is interrupted when Einar receives an unwelcome visitor: his former daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez), whom Einar blames for the death of his son twelve years ago and is now throwing herself on Einar’s unwelcoming doorstep after fleeing her abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis). But Jean has brought someone else: a granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), whom Einar didn’t know existed, and grudgingly, the old man lets them in.

The overall plot trajectory of An Unfinished Life is obvious, as is the fact that Einar is your classic “curmudgeon with a heart of gold”. Einar will slowly bond with his granddaughter, he’ll forgive Jean, Jean will forgive herself, and both of them will finally come to terms with an event they’ve never emotionally moved past. But director Lasse Hallstrom has a deft touch, the pace is deliberate and unhurried, and there’s not a weak performance to be found, and the result turns a touchy-feely sappy drama into something quietly affecting. While the title “An Unfinished Life” refers most literally to Einar’s son—it’s engraved on his tombstone which sits on a hilltop overlooking the house like a lonely sentinel—it also refers less directly to both Einar and Jean. Einar in some ways has been in a state of suspended animation ever since, and by her own eventual admission, Jean ended up with a man like Gary because she didn’t feel she deserved any better. There’s some small subplots—Jean’s semi-romance with the amiable town sheriff (Josh Lucas)—-and a hint of tension/conflict when Gary tracks Jean down and starts lurking around, but these secondary elements are kept in the background, and this never turns into a romance or a thriller. In fact, the most substantive subplot involves the bear that mauled Mitch, and how this eventually leads to Mitch also confronting his own demons in a physical way.

Robert Redford, now at the age where he’s beyond playing the romantic leading man, settles nicely into the skin of the grizzled, unshaven Einar without worrying about being attractive. The sight of Redford riding a horse across the Wyoming wilderness isn’t much of a stretch, and he seems right at home. He is nicely-paired with the ever-reliable Morgan Freeman, who is his customary wise self, quietly observing and giving a little gentle prodding here and there. Einar and Mitch are as close as two heterosexual guys can be—Griff even mistakes them for a gay couple—and Redford and Freeman slip together easily enough for us to buy it. Jennifer Lopez, toned down and de-glamorized, reminds us that she can be a capable actress when she puts her mind to it (one wonders if she picked this low-key, down-to-earth role to get back to the basics after a few poorly-received movies and gaining an image as a paparazzi darling). Newcomer Becca Gardner is yet another child actor who is never caught in a false note; her performance is as natural and unaffected as any of her far more experienced co-stars. Apart from these four, everyone else has walk-on roles—Josh Lucas is on-hand to be a semi-love interest and Damian Lewis doesn’t have much screentime—although Camryn Manheim makes the most out of a pretty thankless part. Unsurprisingly, Bart the Bear II does his share of scene-stealing.

An Unfinished Life is aimed at a specific audience, those who don’t demand action or flashy spectacle and appreciate a low-key, leisurely character drama that unspools at its own pace. To that end, it exists as a kind of counterprogramming, and within that genre, it’s a worthy example

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