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Director: Lasse Hallström

Producers: Leslie Holleran, Alan Ladd Jr., Kelliann Ladd

Written by: Mark Spragg & Virginia Korus Spragg

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


The tombstone of Einar Gilkyson’s (Redford) dead son is carved with the film’s touchingly appropriate title, “An Unfinished Life.” It also mirrors the theme of this heartfelt, languidly paced, yet utterly predictable film by Swedish director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). The story is filled with unfinished lives. Lives stuck in the middle. Lives filled with grief, anger, resentment, disappointment.

We don’t get much of a sense about Einar’s dead son, except to know that he was a fine young man whose life was cruelly stolen at the height of youth (he was 21). Jennifer Lopez is passable as the widowed Jean Gilkyson, the long-estranged daughter-in-law of Redford’s Einar. Fleeing her abusive boyfriend, Gary (played by British actor Damian Lewis), Jean and her 11-year-old daughter, Griff (the marvelous Gardner) board a bus in Iowa and head west, toward the Grand Tetons of remote Wyoming. They are looking for a new home, a safe refuge from the past. What they find is an unforgiving, unwelcoming Einar who blames Jean for his son’s death 12 years ago.

As a battered woman trying to make some sense of her life, Lopez is not terrible. But she’s not very memorable either. Unfortunately for Lopez, her hair is perfectly coiffed in every scene, her makeup meticulously applied, which is, at the very least, not at all believable (I had the same problem with Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain—these women look like they just walked off the cover of Vogue, which is absurd). Ordinary women living in rural poverty can’t afford Esteé Lauder, and it drives me crazy when vanity takes precedence over the truth.

Redford and Morgan Freeman, playing two grizzled old cowhands, on the other hand, could not be more convincing. While Freeman revisits a familiar, wise friend (think Million Dollar Baby and The Shawshank Redemption) as Mitch Bradley, Einar’s live-in ranch hand, he still manages to pull it off. And Redford, for my money, has never been better. He starts out as a crusty old crank, and, thankfully, he remains one. Maybe a bit wiser and a little less bitter in the end, but he is absolutely believable in every frame. His face is cracked with aging, perhaps too many days spent in the sun working cattle, his voice deep and throaty, his attitude fearless. In fact, Redford is so admirable in this role, it might just land him an Oscar nomination.

Perhaps the film’s most refreshing discovery is the talent of newcomer Becca Gardner. She is superlative as the emotionally precocious 11-year-old Griff Gilkyson, Redford’s granddaughter who wishes she could have known the father Einar can’t stop mourning.

When Jean and Griff arrive at Einar’s home, you get the feeling that this is a real place, not just a set constructed to look like a dilapidated old cattle ranch. There are several mangy cats and a nosy raccoon thrown in to add to the bucolic color, and, for the most part, it works. What doesn’t work nearly as well is the obvious metaphor of the grizzly bear that mauled and scarred Einar's best friend, Mitch. Mitch wants to free his bear from its prison (it is picked up by a local zookeeper and displayed for the paying public in a cruel concrete and wire cage), just as Mitch would like to free Einar, and perhaps himself as well, from the cages of old age and regret. Following Jean and Griff's surprising arrival, the story takes some predictable turns, and you can easily guess where it ends up—with forgiveness and a new beginning for everyone involved.

Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography is lovely—the mountainous backdrop of the Canadian Rockies posing as superior imposters to the real Ishawooa, Wyoming location where the story actually takes place. It’s too bad the music, which punctuates each scene, is maudlin and overused. Though it is refreshing to see a woman’s name (Deborah Lurie) under the composer’s credit, it’s unfortunate that Lurie fails to distinguish herself with some tunes which easily could have stood proudly apart from the bombastic scores of most Hollywood movies. Simplicity doesn’t seem to be highly valued much out West, except perhaps in the films of Clint Eastwood, God bless him.

There is enough humor in An Unfinished Life to keep even the most pessimistic of moviegoers entertained, but the sentimentality gets too gooey in places, particularly the very end, which detracts from an otherwise satisfactory conclusion. It’s certainly the kind of movie that makes you think about your own family woes, the sort that might make you cry. It’s also the kind of movie you wish could have been just a little bit better, because it could have been great.

—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett

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