Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) lives on a broken down cattle ranch outside of a small town in a beautiful valley in Wyoming. He is about seventy years old, and cares for his friend of forty years, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who lives in a cabin near the ranch house. Einar is edgy and crusty; Mitch is partially disabled and in pain. They argue with one another as old friends. Each day Einar milks the one remaining cow and visits his son Griff’s grave on the hillside. His wife left him when he started drinking after his son died. One morning he discovers bear prints. An old foe has returned.
Far away in Iowa a young woman, Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) is battered by her boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis). She finally flees with her eleven year old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner). Jean decides to take refuge with her father-in-law Einar until she gets on her feet. Griff is astounded to learn she has a grandfather.
When they arrive at the ranch, Einar is less than welcoming but surprised to find he has a granddaughter. Jean tells him she was pregnant at her husband Griff’s funeral. Einar blames Jean for his son’s death, but begrudgingly gives Jean and his granddaughter a room to stay in.
Einar goes to hunt for the bear, the one that attacked and injured Mitch. As he is about to shoot it, the sheriff (Josh Lucas) arrives with an animal unit and they take the bear to a local zoo.
Over the course of a few weeks, Jean gets a job at the café in town and Griff spends time with her grandfather and Mitch. When Gary shows up, Einar and the sheriff rough him up and kick him out of town. Meanwhile Mitch asks Einar to visit the bear. “Why?” asks the irritable Einar. “Because I asked you to,” answers Mitch. Einar goes to see the bear, filled with hate. A few days later, Mitch asks Einar to take food to the bear. Einar prepares chunks of beef and Griff teaches him that bears like honey, so he covers the meat with the sweet stuff.
Einar likes having Griff around and starts to teach her something about his old truck. He even teaches her how to ride a horse and together they visit her father’s grave.
Meanwhile, Jean seduces the sheriff, and Einar is not impressed. Jean gets angry and makes Griff move with her to the home of the woman who owns the café (Camryn Manheim). But Griff rebels and goes home to be with her grandfather. “Did you walk back here all by yourself?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because I was hungry.” Griff responds. There is always another question lingering: hate for whom? Hunger for what? The beauty of this film is that we know the answer and we don’t mind.
Einar and Griff begin to hatch a plot to kidnap the bear. Just then Gary returns and events move along to the climax of the film – and that’s all I can tell you.
An Unfinished Life may sound like a low termperature movie, and in some ways it is. Based on the novel by Mark Spragg, it is filmed and directed in the quietly lyrical manner we have come to expect from director Lasse Hallstrom. The natural setting of the film is old, wild, broken down, the landscape craggy and beautiful – like the characters. However, it is not a perfect film. Jennifer Lopez’s character could have been more developed; as it was, she came off as a minor character because we expected stability after such a rough life, but got immaturity instead.
Redford and Freeman exude dignity and their sparring makes us think we are there, and that this isn’t a movie but real life. Their old friendship anchors the story, and the presence of the bear, as threat and symbol of guilt and grief, ties the plot together. The main characters are those played by Redford, Freeman, and a wonderful newcomer, Becca Gardner. When the film is over, these are the ones we remember and characters we would like to know.
I think that Lopez and Lucas are distracting to the story, but this does not make the viewing of this mellow, classic-style Western-flavored Hollywood movie any less enjoyable. It is very moving, and however predictable, and whatever its flaws, An Unfinished Life has the power to move us and to ask, like the characters, why we always want what we cannot have – and then look with gratitude on what comes to us. Alone we cannot stand, but together, as family and community, we are strong.
This is one to see on a Sunday afternoon.