Robert Redford has been less active in recent years (as a movie star, anyway), but “An Unfinished Life” is a reminder that his talent is only getting stronger, that his acting life is indeed not yet finished.
Here he plays a gruff and solitary Wyoming rancher named Einar Gilkyson, whose body and pickup truck are both beginning to suffer from age. With his frequent muttering and cowboy-style swearing, Einar is a Clint Eastwood kind of role for Redford; he’s even got Eastwood’s old buddy Morgan Freeman on staff, as Einar’s ranch hand and best friend Mitch.
Einar sold off most of his cows years ago and now lives quietly and simply on the homestead. This existence is disrupted by the arrival of his dead son’s wife Jean (Jennifer Lopez), whom he has not seen since the funeral 12 years ago and whom he blames for the car-accident death of his beloved son. He did not know that Jean was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death; the fruit of that circumstance, Einar’s granddaughter, is named Griff (Becca Gardner) and she’s 11, and she’s just as surprised to learn of Einar’s existence as he is of hers.
Jean and Griff have fled Jean’s most recent abusive boyfriend (Damian Lewis), and if the bruise on Jean’s cheek does nothing to detract from J-Lo’s airbrushed glamour, at least the situation is slightly more realistic than it was the last time she played an abused woman (I’m referring to “Enough,” not her relationship with Puff Daddy). Her dirtbag boyfriend is bound by Hollywood’s laws of abusive men to follow her to Wyoming, but thankfully the film does not dwell excessively on that little melodrama.
The thrust of the story is driven by emotions, not plots, and primarily on the rift between Einar and Jean: him senselessly blaming her for something she couldn’t control, her having low enough self-esteem to think she deserves it. There is some unfortunate speechifying and platitude-making — Griff yelling at Jean for choosing such rotten men; Jean yelling at Einar for blaming her for his son’s death; Mitch yelling at Einar (well, the Morgan Freeman version of yelling) for refusing to forgive anyone. But I suppose when you put this many wounded characters together in a room, they’re bound to lash out at each other.
The conscience of the film, of course, is Mitch. Rare is the film in which Morgan Freeman appears that he is not the conscience. Mitch was mauled by a bear a year ago, and the right half of his body shows the horrible scars. Every morning Einar injects him with morphine to help with the pain, helps him shave, helps him get dressed. Their decades-old friendship is so tender (beneath the standard cootiness of old age) that young Griff assumes they’re gay. They’re not — the gay cowboy movie is called “Brokeback Mountain,” and it hasn’t been released yet — but Mitch is the sort of saintly character who inspires such devotion.
What’s more, he’s forgiven the bear. The bear was just following its natural instincts; it had no malice toward Mitch. And if Mitch can forgive the beast that deformed him, why can’t everyone else in the movie forgive the people who have hurt them?
The screenplay, by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg, indulges in such obvious parallelism, yes, but it sure makes you feel good. As Einar warms to his granddaughter and eventually to his daughter-in-law, and as Jean (somewhat less clearly) comes to believe she is worthy of a good man (the local sheriff, specifically, played by Josh Lucas), Lasse Hallstrom’s straightforward direction brings the story to the cockles of one’s heart, which it promptly warms.
It is not revelatory material, but it’s played well — not so much by Lopez, who is the same as always, nor by newcomer Gardner, who is your typical young actress, but by Freeman and Redford. Freeman has done this character before, several times, but Redford is in somewhat uncharted territory as a man who has spiraled since his son’s death yet who is not one-dimensionally mean or angry. Einar has a friendliness to him and a quick sense of humor, the sort of man everyone in town likes, even if he’s somewhat less accessible these last few years.
When Mitch asks Einar if he’ll bury him up near his son, Einar waits a beat and replies, “Shouldn’t you die first?” Personally, I’m not comfortable with the idea of Freeman or Redford dying. “An Unfinished Life” demonstrates that both actors are still in their prime, rising above even ordinary material.
B (1 hr., 47 min.; )