An Unfinished Life
May 1, 2006
An Unfinished Life (2005) is one of those character-driven kinds of movies that takes its time letting us gradually get to know its characters. It isn’t terribly original but a well-made effort nonetheless.
Einar Gilkyson (Redford) leads a simple existence on his Wyoming ranch tending to his animals and helping his physically impaired friend Mitch Bradley (Freeman). This all changes when his dead son’s wife, Jean (Lopez) shows up on his front door one day with her daughter (Gardner) in tow. She’s on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend (Lewis). There is visible tension between Einar and Jean because he blames her for the death of his son. However, the presence of his granddaughter changes things as he realizes that she is his only link to his own child.
Robert Redford plays a man plagued by a life full of regrets. Einar is a grizzled old man who’s led a hard life. It’s almost as if the Sundance Kid survived that showdown in Bolivia and retired to Wyoming. Redford proves that he’s still got top notch acting chops playing an embittered man haunted by his past. Like Clint Eastwood, he wears his old age well. The lines in his face speak volumes and suggest the tough life his character must have led. He and Morgan Freeman play well off each other as cantankerous old friends who have the kind of verbal short hand that only long-time friends can.
Newcomer Becca Gardner is quite good, holding her own with Freeman and Redford which is no easy task. Her character has the challenging task of befriending two damaged men – one on the outside (Mitch) and one on in the inside (Einar). The film is at its best in the scenes with the three of them. They have great chemistry together. Jennifer Lopez does an okay job but doesn’t have the chops to handle the dramatic scenes in a convincing manner. Often it looks like she’s acting while the others are much more natural, disappearing into their roles.
One of the film’s reoccurring images is that of the bear that mauled Mitch. It roams the surrounding countryside until the local sheriff (Lucas) helps capture the animal and put it in a zoo. Einar resents the bear as much as he resents Jean because both represent periods in his life he would rather not remember. During the course of the movie, he realizes that he can’t hate either one forever. They can’t change who they are and aren’t entirely to blame for the state of things.
An Unfinished Life is all about communication. Einar has closed himself off from others, especially his daughter-in-law. However, his granddaughter provides the key to getting him to open up as they end up bonding over fixing his pick-up truck. Lasse Hallstrom is very much at home with this material having already explored it in a different, more offbeat kind of Americana with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). He does an excellent job of capturing the rugged, postcard-perfect beauty of Wyoming and the laid-back pace of small-town life.
There is an audio commentary by director Lasse Hallstrom, producer Leslie Holleran and editor Andrew Mondshein. Hallstrom talks about the look of the movie while Mondshein explains how subjectivity was achieved through editing. Holleran talks about shooting the movie in Canada. They do play well off each other so that there is very little dead air.
“The Making of An Unfinished Life” is standard press kit material that mixes cast and crew soundbites with clips from the movie. The cast gush about Hallstrom and wanted to do the film to work with him.
“Training Bart the Bear” examines how the two trainers for Bart the bear got such an amazing performance out of this wild animal. They actually raised him from when he was only five months old and as a result he has a whole repertoire of tricks.
Finally, there is a stills gallery of behind the scenes photos.