...an old-fashioned tearjerker, to be sure, yet parts of it undeniably work.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Like everyone else, I shouldn't but sometimes do prejudge a film based on its stars and director. This one stars two of Hollywood's best: Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman, with Jennifer Lopez and Josh Lucas thrown in for good measure, and there's hardly anything I haven't liked from these folks. So far, so good. But its Swedish director, Lasse Hallstrom, comes with more mixed credentials. I loved "The Cider House Rules," liked "Chocolat," sort of liked "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," was bored by "The Shipping News," and hadn't seen "Casanova." I did notice a pattern in the films I'd seen, though: They're character-driven slices of life, and they're often melodramatic. Would this 2005 release, "An Unfinished Life," be a gripping, heartfelt narrative or a sudsy soap opera? Maybe a little of both.

The setting is the mountains of Wyoming, where Redford and Freeman play a couple of aging cowboy buddies, Einar Gilkyson and Mitch Bradley, who have been best friends for forty years and run a ranch in the highlands. Life has not been easy on either of them. Einar lost his son in an automobile accident about eleven or twelve years earlier, after which his wife left him. A bear mauled and crippled Mitch the year before, and he is now largely bedridden, taken care of by his old friend. Into their lives come two women.

The women are Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), Einar's daughter-in-law, and Griff Gilkyson (Becca Gardner), her eleven-year-old daughter. Griff is a granddaughter Einar didn't know he had, and Einar is a grandfather Griff didn't know she had. You see, Einar always blamed his daughter-in-law Jean for his son's death--she was driving when the accident occurred--and Jean was pregnant with Griff at the time but didn't tell Einar, what with his feelings toward her and all. When Griff got old enough, Jean told her that her grandfather was dead.

But Jean and Griff face troubled times. They must flee an abusive boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), or Jean will endure continued beatings, and they have nowhere else to go but to granddad's ranch and no one else to turn to but Einar. "I don't want you here" are Einar's first words to her when he sees her. "Well," she responds, "at least we agree on something. I don't want to be here, either."

But he takes them in, temporarily. Jean gets a job as a waitress at a local cafe in town and makes friends with the young, unattached sheriff (Josh Lucas), while Griff begins liking the workings of a ranch. Not that there are any cattle left on the place. After his wife left him, Einar sold off most of the livestock, and has apparently been living on the proceeds ever since. Seems a little odd, but I suppose he got a goodly sum of money for them to keep Mitch and him afloat all these years. We see Einar doing very little work around the place beyond milking the cow or fixing his pickup truck.

The film's first half sets up the problems; the second half resolves them. It's a rather predictable story, with the analogy of the bear, which still lurks around the property, becoming a bit obvious, and the specter of the old boyfriend showing up at inconvenient times.

Redford plays Einar as a gruff, tough, grizzled old codger, who buried his son on a nearby hill under a tombstone marked "An unfinished life," and he spends most of the movie talking aloud to the son when he isn't cussing out his dilapidated pickup. He also wears the same scruffy stubble on his face much of the time, another of those only-in-the-movies kind of beards. Einar is hard, grumpy, mean-spirited, and totally unforgiving toward Jean when she shows up. It isn't easy for Einar to say "thank you" or call his granddaughter anything but "that kid." We can see in a moment where all this crusty, curmudgeonly stuff is heading.

Freeman plays Mitch as the usual wise, kindly, understanding sort of friend the actor does so well. We've seen him do it in "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Million Dollar Baby," and probably half a dozen more films. If you're good at something, that's what you do. Could you ever see Freeman as a villain? He lends the movie heart. Redford and Freeman make a good buddy team, and one wishes to see more of them together in the future.

While the film is sweet, no doubt, it moves along at a snail's pace and doesn't move very far. That in itself would not be a concern, except that we can predict an hour ahead of time how it's all going to pan out. Still, it's the quality of the acting that keeps it afloat; that and the gorgeous cinematography. There is nothing like the sight of mountains and trees on a superwide screen to keep an audience's attention.

Anyway, incidents involving Einar and the bear, Mitch and the bear, and Einar and Mitch and the old boyfriend make up the film's concluding conflicts. Will Einar ever forgive his daughter-in-law? Will he accept his granddaughter for the loving child she is? Will he patch up old wounds? Will he forgive himself for being drunk the day the bear attacked Mitch? Will Mitch forgive the bear that practically ended his life? Will a bear be attracted to honey? Yes, it's all very conventional, but, as I say, it can be quite touching, too. It's good to watch professionals at work, even when the work is slight.

It's a lovely picture to look at in terms of its image, very clean and clear, with minimal grain, surely nothing more than was on the original print. There is a high bit rate to deliver sharp contours and detail, deep black levels, and realistic colors. The outdoor scenery, filmed in Canada to simulate Wyoming, is well captured in the generous screen size, measuring an anamorphic ratio of approximately 2.15:1 across my television, coming quite close to its 2.40:1 theatrical-release dimensions.

Frankly, there isn't a lot for the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound processing to do. There's a light, rustic musical track that plays throughout the film, and there's dialogue. It's a quiet film, so the audio system does what it can with a little rain noise and musical ambience in the surrounds. For what it needs to do, it's excellent. Just don't expect it to do too much.

The disc comes with the standard complement of bonus features. To begin, there's an audio commentary with director Lasse Hallstrom, producer Leslie Holleran, and editor Andrew Mondshein that tells more about the film's themes than the film itself makes clear. Next are two featurettes. The first, "Making of An Unfinished Life," is eight minutes long, wherein the director explains that the movie is a story of forgiveness and a story of the balance in nature. The comments from the rest of the filmmakers are pretty typical of these kinds of behind-the-scenes affairs. The second, "Training Bart the Bear," about ten minutes, I found more interesting, maybe because the bear steals the show from all the pros. Finally, there are eighteen scene selections, with a chapter insert; a widescreen still gallery; and trailers only at start-up for "Glory Road," "Annapolis," and "Deep Blue." The disc provides English and French for spoken languages, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"An Unfinished Life" is an old-fashioned tearjerker, to be sure, yet parts of it undeniably work. Yes, I found it slow-paced and at times laboriously formulaic, but I also found it appealing and warmhearted, a "family" picture despite its occasional harsh word. As Mitch says at the end of the film, "There's a reason for everything."


Film Value