Starring: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Bart the Bear
Rated PG-13 for Some Violence including Domestic Abuse, and Language
We all have skeletons in the closet. In a strange way, we cling to whatever makes us hurt and grieve, as if by letting go we will forget. This is of course a falsehood, and anyone who doesn't share your pain will think you're crazy or ruminating on it. But for those who understand, it makes a twisted sort of sense.
That's the conundrum that Einar Gilkyson (Redford) finds himself in. Years ago, his daughter-in-law was driving the car when she fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. She survived, but his son did not, and he has never forgiven her. Eleven years later, he has resigned himself to a life of solitude, looking after his friend Mitch (Freeman) who was the victim of a bear mauling and needs constant care. Then one day, Jean (Lopez), his much-hated daughter-in-law arrives on his doorstep with Griff (Gardner), the granddaughter he never knew he had. She's looking for refuge from her abusive boyfriend, Gary (Lewis), and needs about a month to get on her feet. Some painful wounds are about to be reopened...
This is the story of two people finally getting the chance to heal. Clearly, Einar has some unresolved issues surrounding his son's death. But in his grief, he's pushed everyone away and cast blame on the person who is perhaps hurting the most. He's become blinded to the fact that Jean is hurting too, even when Mitch points out the obvious. Jean knows full well why Einar hates her, but she doesn't have anywhere else to go. She needs to get as far away from Gary as possible, and remote Wyoming seems idyllic for that. Griff did not know her father, and as such looks at the situation from an objective point-of-view. She's keenly aware of the tension, but learns the reasons for it as we do. However, after a strong start, director Lasse Hallstrom begins to lose control over the material. He resorts to contrivances and leaving half-developed changes in relationships in order to keep the running time low. For such a character-oriented drama with this much depth, 108 minutes is too skinny a running time. "An Unfinished Life" could have easily benefitted from another 10 to 20 minutes of screen time to smooth out the kinks in the story.
The acting is exceptional, which makes it doubly shameful that the cast wasn't given the time they deserved to bring their characters to life. Although I have repeatedly stated my irritation of the "too macho to express himself" character trope, Einar Gilkyson isn't one of them. Einar is a reserved man by nature, but he is not above doling out passive-aggressive (or blunt) punishment to the woman he believes to be responsible for his son's early death. This is a departure for Redford, who is known for his charming, easy-going characters. It's also one of his best performances. Jennifer Lopez was known as a serious actress at one time, with well-received performances in movies like "Selena," "Out of Sight," and "The Cell." Then lazy performances, cash grabs and pop albums turned her into a tabloid queen. This is a return to serious acting, and it shows why we fell in love with her in the first place. Lopez brings strength and vulnerability to the role, making Jean easy to sympathize with. She's hurting too, but understands why Einar hates her. Morgan Freeman doesn't have a lot to do other than be almost bed-ridden and cajole Einar into forgiveness, and while it's a little bit of a waste to see him in such a limited role, Freeman is Freeman, and you really don't need much more than that. As Griff, Becca Gardner is solid, but lacks the range necessary for big emotions. Josh Lucas is positively charming playing a local cop (for once, he's not playing a creep). Damian Lewis is the weak link; Lewis is a fine actor and does the best he can, but he's miscast as a psychopath.
While there are other flaws, such as the cheesy end to Mitch's story arc or the poorly handled climax, the film's main flaw is its length. There's enough good stuff here to recommend it, including some impressive camerawork by Oliver Stapleton, but with a bit more breathing room, it could have been a deeply moving experience. As it is, it's still a solid drama and worth your time if you're interested.