Filming finished on the movie adaptation of the Mark Spragg novel “An Unfinished Life” back in April of 2003, so what’s it doing just now showing up in theaters? When a movie sits on the shelf as long as An Unfinished Life has, it’s usually because it’s so botched that the studio in charge of it (in this case Miramax) has no confidence in it. In other words, it stinks so bad they’re embarrassed by it. An Unfinished Life however, is anything but an embarrassment. A slow and sometimes meandering film about a family still coping with loss a decade after the fact, it pits two of the silver screen’s finest elder actors together in Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford. Both shine as only truly gifted performers can, in roles reminiscent of, yet better developed than, those portrayed by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine in Secondhand Lions.
An Unfinished Life is the story of a mother escaping physical abuse by running back to her hometown and dumping her daughter on her curmudgeonly father-in-law and his elderly next door neighbor. More than a decade earlier, Jean (Jennifer Lopez) was married to Einer’s (Robert Redford) son, when he was killed in a car accident. Einer has never gotten over it, and in fact blames Jean for his son’s death. Jean left town shortly after her husband’s funeral, never telling Einer she was pregnant with his granddaughter Griff (Becca Gardener). Now, Jean shows up on Einer’s doorstep, fleeing from an abusive boyfriend with nowhere else left to turn.
Einer is unmoved by the revelation that he has a granddaughter. He begrudgingly allows Jean and Griff to stay on his scenic Wyoming ranch, more out of loyalty to his dead son than out of any desire to help his former daughter-in-law. He’s not only uninterested in getting to know his granddaughter, he’s downright bitter. Of course eventually, Griff wins him over. Redford creates a truly wonderful character in Einer. Part craggily old mountain-man, part grieving father, he’s both tough and gentle all at once, a remnant of a different world. The cabin next to his is occupied by Mitch (Morgan Freeman), Einer’s lifelong friend and former ranch hand. Mitch was brutally mauled by a bear (Bart the Bear) a year ago, and now remains bedridden. When the bear who munched Mitch shows back up on the ranch, director Lasse Hallström lays the animal symbolism on thick as Freeman’s character comes to grips with what happened to him. He refuses to harbor any ill will towards the animal, “he was just a bear, doing what bears do.”
If there’s a problem with the film it’s Jean, for whom the film desperately wants us to have sympathy, but who doesn’t seem to deserve it. Simply put, Jean is a bad mother. She makes horrible choices and attaches both herself and her daughter to a string of bad men. Though this is perhaps her own way of punishing herself for the guilt she feels over her husbands death, she’s so absorbed with herself and her own problems that her daughter suffers. When finally she finds a good man, she toys with and uses him for her own benefit and protection. It’s hard to really root for a character like that. Perhaps in the hands of a more delicate, skilled actress the character could have been sympathetic, but Lopez’s mediocre talents are not up to the task of elevating Jean beyond the basest tenets of the material she’s given. Jennifer Lopez does not give a terrible performance, but put her next to two masters of their craft like Freeman and Redford, and the film feels like it sputters whenever she shows up in it.
Freeman and Redford by the way are glorious. They’re both at the top of their game; achieving an amazing sort of chemistry together on camera. These are not two feeble old men knocking on death’s door, but two brilliant on screen personalities bringing all the fire of life and years and wisdom to the film in their blisteringly powerful characters. Set against the beautiful backdrop of Wyoming, the film is worth watching just for the chance to see such fantastic performers bringing so much nuance and subtlety to their roles. Griff serves as sort of the catalyst for both of them, a storm of new perspective and energy brought into Einer and Mitch’s lives. Together, they lift the rather melodramatic material they’re working with to something much much better.
It’s hard to understand why Miramax has had An Unfinished Life shelved for so long. It’s not likely to be a huge cash cow, but it’s a solid, mature movie that adult audiences will likely find satisfying. With the world drowning in (and sick of) remakes, retreads, and lowest common denominator crap marketed specifically to brain dead teenagers or the criminally stupid; to see a quiet, thoughtful film like this is almost a relief. I really don’t think Lopez was quite up to the task of getting the best out of such a touchy part, but the rest of the cast does amazing work in this thoughtful, picturesque piece of relationship drama. It isn’t fast, it isn’t flashy, but in the hands of Freeman and Redford it’s got depth.