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Time to Handle That Unfinished Life

Published September 27, 2005 in Movie Reviews
By Kasey Schiedeck | Images property of Miramax
An Unfinished Life Poster An Unfinished Life
Released with such other fare as the recent Stealth, Transporter 2, Cry Wolf (the list goes on and on), director Lasse Hallström's An Unfinished Life is a uniquely gentle, quiet film that tries too hard but still manages to be as ingratiating as possible if overly saccharine. It seems that a decent message can almost certainly upgrade a film of little other caliber these days.

An Unfinished Life Review

An Unfinished Life begins with a glimpse into the dismal lives of Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) a misanthropic Wyoming rancher and Mitch, the incapacitated ranch hand he looks after. Mitch, we learn shortly, was mauled by a grizzly bear about a year before and now solemnly accepts the coffee and Morphine supplied daily by Einar as he and his companion of over 40 years patiently await death. As far as Einer is concerned, his life ended with the death of his son about a dozen years before-and it certainly appears that way. Einer's withdrawn lifestyle is interrupted by the uninvited arrival of his daughter-in-law, Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), who is on the run from an abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis). Jean has brought with her Einer's granddaughter Griff (Becca Gardner) who Einer is unaware ever existed. In his bitter despair, Einer blames Jean for the premature death of his son (she was driving the car that killed him) and does not welcome her or his granddaughter. The remainder of the film follows Einer's predictable retreat from acrimony as he learns to forgive, forget, love, bond, whatever it is that he must do to become a human being again.

This all sounds about as banal as it actually is, but despite pathetically obvious symbolism (which is not to say invaluable), and roll-your-eyes one liners, the film actually works due in no small part to the steadfast determination of its cast and Hallström's penchants for sentiment. The characters are played convincingly, the setting is believable (with splendid cinematography provided by Oliver Stapleton), and we fall into a rhythm with story when it is clear that it will be nothing but perfectly calculated and unhurried. The film is slow by nature, yes, but Hallström's direction is focused, he knows what he wants each shot, sequence, gesture to illustrate and he gleans just that from the cast's strong performances-excluding the frequently berated Lopez who is only as good as she needs to be but still much more believable as an abused woman than we've previously seen (Enough anyone?).

Of the A-list cast, Freeman's performance is unfortunately the most contrived as he rambles through a list of wise advice to the uncooperative Einer. The wise old black man who must repair an ignorant old white man sounds questionably similar to the far superior Clint Eastwood-Morgan Freeman male bonding displayed in the 2004 boxing picture Million Dollar Baby. Alas, Life was filmed a year before and does not compare in aptitude in the least. It is a shame to force Freeman's Mitch to utter such repulsively clichéd proverbs-his task in nearly every one of his scenes.

An Unfinished Life An Unfinished Life
Redford, looking every bit his age of 68, has a subtle charm and humor as he sits, muttering to himself and his dead son's grave even if we are sequentially irritated with his painfully prolonged pity party.

Newcomer Becca Gardner displays promising acting chops in a role that requires a healthy number of pre-teen tears. And as the local diner owner, Camryn Manheim provides a nice juxtaposition to Einer's mourning as we learn that she too has buried a child.

Also in the mix, naturally, is a hunky local sheriff (Josh Lucas) with whom Jean has a peculiar roadside romp with just days after arriving in town. This scene, in all of about eight seconds, provides the only twist to an otherwise uninspired story.

The success of the film is its careful study of salvation and clemency. It is hard not to smile when little Griff tells Einer that a previous boyfriend of Jean's was "mean with words…like you." After just spending the last hour hearing Einer mutter profanities to himself and blame his daughter-in-law for his son's untimely death, this is a strange instant of poignant truth. We also learn a key factor in Mitch's brutal mauling that will no doubt alter anyone's perception of the rugged ole Einer.

By the films end, a hefty 117 minutes I might point out, it is clear that despite all of the hullabaloo about the predictability, the film has a meaning, which is more than some movies can attest to. The story will no doubt be labeled "boring" by many moviegoers in our ADHD-centric world, but those who stick with the storyline will appreciate a film about more than impressive car chases and gun-toting warrior princesses. Those who invest the time will be reminded how it feels to moved by a motion picture.

An Unfinished Life (PG-13)
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenplay: Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg
Running time: 107 minutes
Einar Gilkyson: Robert Redford
Mitch: Morgan Freeman
Jean Gilkyson: Jennifer Lopez
Griff Gilkyson: Becca Gardner
Sheriff (Crane): Josh Lucas
Gary: Damian Lewis
Nina: Camryn Manheim

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Kasey Schiedeck
Sources: Images property of Miramax

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