“An Unfinished Life” is set in the high-country of a remote Wyoming ranch. But it also transports us to the high-country of the soul—an inner place that is stark and lonely, where people hide their hurt behind cowboy stoicism and mountains of reserve.
In this quiet and thoughtful drama we meet the emotional hermits of these mountains and slowly uncover the secrets, pain and regret that trap them in self-made emotional cages. On the outside are bears, real and spiritual, that patrol the landscape and challenge them to confront their unfinished lives.
Director Lasse Hallström (“The Cider House Rules”) specializes in making films about dysfunctional groups that evolve into makeshift families. With “An Unfinished Life,” he’s in familiar territory and surrounded by a stellar cast.
Robert Redford, looking finally and comfortably grizzled, plays Wyoming rancher Einar Gilkyson, whose own life seems to have stopped after the accidental death of his only child, Griffin. Einer shares his crumbling ranch with Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a ranch hand and long time friend, who years earlier was left crippled after being severely mauled by a grizzly bear.
The two men pace out their days in a listless surrender to entropy—winding down emotionally as their ranch goes to pieces around them. Without his son to help on the ranch, Einar has sold off all his cattle, except for a lone milk cow, so that he and Mitch can keep the land. This is a portrait of two lives put on hold. Rarely venturing out and never welcoming anyone in, they are two wounded souls simply waiting for the end.
Their moribund routine is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of Einar’s estranged daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez)—Griffin’s widow—and a granddaughter he never knew he had. Einar is anything but welcoming to the two.
When he learns they are fleeing Jean’s abusive boyfriend, however, and that his new granddaughter is named Griff, after his late son, he begins to soften up.
What follows is the difficult and sometimes acrimonious process of confessing, forgiving and healing that turns them all—including Mitch—into a sort of family.
This is familiar territory for director Hallström, and at times “An Unfinished Life” resembles a predictable made-for-TV movie. But what it lacks in surprises, it makes up in many other ways.
Redford’s quietly anguished performance is his best in years, and Morgan Freeman’s Mitch matches his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby.” The surprise here is Lopez, who holds her own against these old pros. The direction is elegant and gently poetic, eschewing flash and obtrusive technique to keep the focus on the characters that drive the story.
For me, the best thing about the movie was how the emotional states of Einar and Mitch are reflected in a series of symbolic elements. Their broken-down truck and dilapidated ranch mirror their own abandoned lives. The vast, empty Wyoming landscapes echo their own lonely interiors.
But best is the bear. As the film opens, we find that the bear that mauled Mitch has returned—rooting through garbage cans and startling the townsfolk. The bear tracks Einar discovers in his damp field jolt him with the reminder that there is unfinished business lurking in the shadows, foreshadowing the arrival of Jean and Griff that will end his years of avoidance and emotional cloister. The bear is an ongoing metaphor that they, and indeed all of us, may have unfinished business to contend with.
“Your life can change in an instant,” Einar says. Whether it’s a tragic car accident, a surprise granddaughter or an angry bear, each of them must grapple with those sudden changes. They learn that they must all confront the “bears” in their lives.
To do so, they learn to be honest about themselves, and with each other. Jean makes a painful confession about her role in her husband’s death, and Einar faces up to his part in Mitch’s mauling. But confession isn’t enough; they must learn to stop casting blame and forgive each other and themselves.
“An Unfinished Life” is not for everybody. Its leisurely pace and quietly unfolding human drama runs counter to Hollywood’s current frenetic style. But with the box-office failure of so many recent big-budget action flicks, maybe the time is right for something different: great acting, beautiful cinematography and graceful direction, all serving a character-driven tale of redemption and forgiveness. Maybe it’s time for more films like “An Unfinished Life.”
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md. This review appears on UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church, with an accompanying group study guide. It is used here with permission.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mild language and violence.
Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Einar Gilkyson: Robert Redford; Jean: Jennifer Lopez; Mitch Bradley: Morgan Freeman.