Unfinished Life, An (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Robert Redford on a horse roaming the wide-open countryside of Wyoming - doesn't sound like much of a stretch, does it? What is unusual about Redford's participation in Lasse Hallström's An Unfinished Life is that the actor in as unkempt as he has ever appeared on screen (he looks like showed up on set after bypassing the makeup trailer). And, although this touchy-feely motion picture transforms Redford's character into a human being, he starts out as an unapologetic misanthrope.

The tale presented in An Unfinished Life cannot be considered original. It's as familiar a piece of storytelling as you're likely to find - a physically and emotionally isolated man is revived by the introduction of two strangers into his life. With a movie like this, there are no surprises. You get what you expect. Success is based on three factors. Are the characters believable and interesting? In this case, yes. The small group of men and women populating An Unfinished Life transcend the stereotypes from which they spring. Is the acting solid? Again, yes. There isn't a weak performance to be found. Finally, does the plot contain enough interesting details to prevent it from seeming stale? There are some interesting minor elements here that allow it to avoid being a clone of every other movie of its ilk.

Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) lives alone in rural Wyoming. His sole companion is Mitch (Morgan Freeman), a former fellow cowboy who became an invalid a year ago after being mauled by a bear. Einar cares for Mitch, giving him a pain-killing shot every morning with his cup of coffee, then bringing him lunch and dinner. Einar's reclusive lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of his daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), and granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner). Einar isn't overjoyed to see them - he blames Jean for the death of his son 12 years ago, and, until now, wasn't aware of his granddaughter's existence. But Jean and Griff have nowhere to go - she is fleeing from a violent boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), and needs someplace to get her footing.

On the surface, the film is about Einar getting to know his beloved son's daughter. It takes some prodding from Mitch, a lowering of Einar's guard, and a few visits to his deceased son's grave before he makes the first move, but he does so. An Unfinished Life is also about Einar forgiving Jean and himself, and Jean coming to grips with what happened. She admits that one of the reasons she ended up with Gary is because, deep down, she didn't feel she deserved better. Meanwhile, Mitch must confront his demons in a concrete way.

Redford, finally acting his age, doesn't try to be a romantic lead. Released from the constraints of having to be handsome to win a woman, he turns in an affecting performance as a man whose life ended with his son's. Morgan Freeman reminds us that there are few better character actors working today. Newcomer Becca Gardner shows no hints of awkwardness - she's a natural. And, for the first time in years, Jennifer Lopez throws off the superstar cloak and gets back to basics. This is the best performance she has given since The Cell, and it recalls her early career, before she became a paparazzi darling. (One wonders if she did this film, with its opportunity to collaborate with a respected director like Hallström, in an attempt to rehabilitate her tarnished reputation as a thespian. Like Ben Affleck, she is still suffering from the fallout of her year of overexposure.)

An Unfinished Life is a study of emotions and characters; it's deliberate and unhurried. The director has an obvious affinity for individuals trapped in stasis - many of his best films focus on them. This movie will appeal to a specific audience - those who care more about spending time with three-dimensional characters than following a convoluted plot or getting an adrenaline kick. An Unfinished Life isn't original, but, for those who enjoy this sort of drama, it's an opportunity to remember how, in the right circumstances, on-screen characters can touch our hearts.

Unfinished Life, An (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1