Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) and her daughter, Griff (played by Becca Gardner) are on their way home with nowhere else to go. This time, “home” is Wyoming, to the place Jean’s late husband was born and raised. She has nowhere else to turn, dumped out of yet another abusive relationship with no money and a daughter to feed. Out of sheer desperation, Jean seeks help from her father-in-law, Einar (Robert Redford).
Until Lopez’ character tells Griff that they’re going to see her grandfather, Griff had no idea that such a person lived on the earth. That’s exactly how Einar liked it – except that he didn’t know he had a granddaughter, either. Einar lives on a piece of land outside of town that no longer produces anything, with no friends except the owner of the café in town (Camryn Manheim), and Mitch (Morgan Freeman), an old cripple who lives in the bunkhouse. Einar still visits his son’s grave every day, and isn’t too thrilled to see the lady he holds responsible for his son’s death turn up on his doorstep.
One look at the cast of An Unfinished Life incites visions of greatness – Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, Jennifer Lopez – the deck is stacked for an all-out chick flick blockbuster. You’d think. The acting was certainly top-notch and absolutely worth watching, but other aspects of the film still manage to fall on their face. The overall execution of the story just didn’t stand up to the promise of greatness.
One of the problems with character actors is that you end up – well, playing to their character. Robert Redford is an awesome actor, but he’s known for being a “tough guy” cowboy who is always on top of his game. That’s great, except when you’re talking about a depressed, alcoholic, grizzled old washed-up bitter cowboy instead. He did wonderfully in the part, but the script writers seemed to think he needed a few tough guy scenes anyway, and those just seemed totally incongruous with the character of Einar Gilkyson.
Morgan Freeman has a similarly well-known typical role. He’s the wise old man who offers sage advice. With his honeyed voice and serene expression, he does an awesome job as “that guy” – so much so that he’s even played God a couple of times. Great, that fits Mitch to a T too. Can we leave it there? Well, no…Mitch is crippled because he was mauled by a bear, so we’re going to create this little sideline story where the bear keeps reappearing. It doesn’t really add anything to the story, and it’s almost like the bear just had one more film in his contract so they figured they’d throw him in there.
Most impressive is Becca Gardner’s performance. Why? Namely, because it’s a rare thing to see kids actually look and act like kids in movies. Instead of a supposed 15-year-old with perfect proportions and a plastering of makeup that would do a hooker proud, you get a totally convincing country girl. She’s quiet and shy, in a bit of an awkward stage, and only speaks when she has something to say. Turns out, it was the perfect casting for then-15-year-old Gardner.
An Unfinished Life is based on a novel by Mark Spragg (linked below). This simple fact may explain the side stories that are just out of place, and don’t seem to start anywhere or go anywhere. It could very well be that they took an awesome book, then did a shoddy film adaptation – not that that has ever happened before. While I haven’t read the book, this would explain why an otherwise brilliant story would have these nonsense side bits. Their anchors into the main story may have been edited out due to time constraints.
Like most movies set in Wyoming, the filming was done in Canada, which does closely simulate the lush mountain vistas around Wyoming’s Bighorn or Uinta Mountains. The result? Breathtaking sprawling scenery, extensive pine forests, and the quiet peace that pervades most of rural Wyoming. It can’t get much better for an authentic filming location.
Aside from the aforementioned muddled sub-plots, it is a good story – but an emotional one. And I do mean, prepare for every bit of the emotional gamut, from age-old ugly bitterness to forgiveness and redemption. Expect quite a few on-screen fireworks between Lopez and Redford – and not the lovey-dovey kind, for sure.
I came across An Unfinished Life through random channel surfing as I was looking for something to watch while I worked on beading. Really, all it took to hook me in was the statement that the story takes place in Wyoming. I’ve lived in Wyoming my whole life, and met my share of people who think it’s not a real place, so I like anything that confirms it really is here. The top-billed cast of Redford, Lopez and Freeman sealed the deal.
One small caveat is that I’m not normally a fan of “chick flicks,” and this is definitely that. It’s not sappy romance, so that’s a point in its favor, but I may be overly critical of the slower pacing and emphasis on emotional scenes. If you like those, or if they’re at least not a detriment to you, then you’ll probably think this movie worth more than the three stars I’ve given it.
Expect very little violence or foul language, and An Unfinished Life is one of those rare films devoid of nudity. In all, it’s a great movie to watch when you want a quiet, emotional viewing experience. If you want a complete story, check out the book.
Disclaimer notice: I have no affiliation with the producers of An Unfinished Life, or anyone else associated with the film. I have not been offered compensation for this review by anyone connected to the movie. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.