The pages turn
Novel-turned-star vehicle picks up pieces of a family’s broken life
Uneven and wobbly in several respects, An Unfinished Life nevertheless has a stronger appeal and a greater dramatic effectiveness than its imperfections would normally seem to permit.
Part soap opera and part modern-day western, this sentimentally scripted multi-character drama has a big-name cast (Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman) and a storyline that is both provocative and predictable. The performances and the casting vary considerably in quality, but the actors rescue the film from its assorted hackneyed elements on several crucial occasions.
Based on a novel by Mark Spragg (with a screenplay adaptation by the novelist and his wife Virginia Korus Spragg), the film seems at first to focus on a widowed single mother named Jean (Lopez) who, with her pre-teen daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) in tow, flees an abusive boyfriend in Iowa and seeks refuge on the Wyoming ranch of her estranged father-in-law Einar Gilkyson (Redford). Einar is still grieving over the death of his son, a decade earlier in an auto accident, for which he still blames Jean, and he is also serving more or less full-time as caregiver for his longtime ranch hand Mitch (Freeman), who has been mauled by a bear.
The emotional pressures of the characters’ assorted guilts and regrets build in predictable ways, and the dramatic ante is raised by a pair of suspense-enhancing arrivals—the abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) has begun stalking Jean in Wyoming and the bear that mauled Mitch has come back to town, and Mitch and Einar are taking it personally. In the midst of this, there is another kind of arrival—Jean’s daughter decides she’d rather live with her newly discovered grandfather than with her mother, who has plunged quickly into a romance with the local sheriff (Josh Lucas).
There’s an excess of family melodrama lurking in all that and director Lasse Hallström cuts it down to credible size by putting a premium on simplicity and understatement. But that doesn’t entirely make up for some of the thuddingly symbolic dialog or for J-Lo’s putting a sleek toughness in when a rougher, more beleaguered toughness is what was needed.
Redford’s Einar is an embittered, crusty old coot, more crusty than bitter and anyway a little bit softened, in spite of his apparent hardness. Mitch is another of Freeman’s African-American savants, and here seems as if he might be a becalmed obsessive borrowed from the fictional worlds of Faulkner or Melville. In any event, the Mitch-Einar parts of the movie are a western, sometimes modern and elegiac, when they contemplate and josh about their wounds, and sometimes old and unrepentant, when they show up almost magically for the showdown with abusive Gary.
What some reviewers have missed is that An Unfinished Life is also a rite of passage story, and a smart and touching one, at that. Becca Gardner’s Griff is an utterly persuasive piece of character acting—and possibly the best work in the film.