How can you go wrong casting Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman together in a film? Although they have each made a few mistakes when taking on a movie role, An Unfinished Life isn’t one of them. Director Lasse Hallström excels at this kind of storytelling. In this adaptation of the book, he creates a heartfelt character-driven drama about tragedy.
Centered on a story about learning to forgive others, Redford stars as the crotchety and ornery Einer Gilkyson, a Wyoming rancher whose son was killed in an auto accident. Now eleven years later his daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), shows up at his ranch asking for a place to get her life back together after ditching her latest boyfriend (Damian Lewis). Neither the shiner blackening her eye, nor her eleven-year-old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner) -- which she claims is Einer’s granddaughter -- makes him sympathetic to taking her in.
Even a hardened old buzzard can’t throw a woman and her daughter out on the street, so Einer agrees, immediately relegating Jean and Griff to the basement and barking orders at them right off the bat. “I don’t want to stay here,” is Griff’s reaction, but her mom assures her it’s only temporary.
While Jean goes to town find a job, Griff is introduced to the elderly black man who lives in the house next to Einer’s. Griff learns from Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman) that he was Einer’s hired hand for forty years, until a grizzly mauled him. Restricted to little movement and mostly bed-bound, Mitch now relies on Einer to feed, dress and shave him as well as to give him his daily painkiller shot.
Within the first few days, Einer tries hard to ignore Griff. But she’s under foot constantly, and she looks just like her dad. Einer won’t admit that she wins his heart, but in no time at all he’s teaching her to repair cars and milk cows. Jean is another story. She was driving the night she and Griff had their accident, and Einer blames her for his son’s death. As she becomes busy with town life, Griff not only learns more about her grandfather, but about the father she never knew. Gardner, a relative newcomer to feature films, is remarkable as a somewhat frustrated and often angry young girl.
Redford can nestle into a character like a baby in a mother’s arms. He’s a natural as Einer. “I had faith that Lasse would leave a lot to be played between the lines which is really also customary in Western life,” he said. “Einar goes into a retreat where he can’t grow or forgive, which creates a wall around him. Forgiving in this case means admitting that you might be wrong, and that’s tough for certain people.”
Jean gets a job at Nina’s (Camryn Manheim) diner, where she handles the rowdies easily. It’s the sensitive and tender type that becomes a challenge, and when Crane (Josh Lucas), one of the local deputies, offers a shoulder for her to lean on, Jean can’t refuse. Lopez does a fine job as Jean, but she carries so much media baggage that it’s hard for me to see her in any role.
Morgan Freeman is one of my favorite actors. Since his fine work in Shawshank Redemption and Glory, many other moviegoers feel the same way. He’s such an amazing actor that it annoys me sometimes that his role in a number of films is a cliché -- the second lead who sees the light and has to make the lead character come to terms with his own failings. Freeman played this character in his Oscar-wining role in Million Dollar Baby and now again in An Unfinished Life. Still, he becomes the character so well he’s an ultimate joy to watch.
Mitch’s accident with the bear (Bart II -- not his famous father Bart) is part of the arc that bonds Einer and Mitch together. Freeman said about the mauling by the bear, “A physical trauma like that creates a change in you. A very vigorous hard-working man all of a sudden is very close to useless. After a year of reflection, he’s probably not the same guy he used to be.”
Mitch tries to get back on his feet, but he also can’t stand to see his friend, who is like a brother to him, wallow in self-pity. He uses the bear, and an almost impossible request from Einer, to make Einer realize it’s not Jean that he needs to forgive, but himself.
Adding his hand to the excellent storytelling in this film is director of photography Oliver Stapleton, who also shot The Shipping News and Cider House Rules for Hallström. Stapleton has an exceptional ability to light his sets in a way that enhances the work. The lovely scenes in British Columbia, which substituted for Wyoming, were never travel brochures of the country, but effectively integrated that beauty and isolation into the characters’ personal framework.
An Unfinished Life is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated “PG-13” for some violence including domestic abuse, and language.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.