I’ve always been interested in real life stories and trying to portray real life. I like documentaries, I like anything real, and trying to observe and comment on human behavior, and make movies where we recognize themselves.
—Lasse Hallström, commentary track
They call ‘em accidents to make the guilty feel better.
—Einar (Robert Redford)
“Let’s see if I can remember,” says Lasse Hallström as he begins to describe An Unfinished Life for the DVD commentary track. His affection for the project and characters is plain from the start: Einar Gilkyson, played by Robert Redford, is of Swedish descent, and the details of his Wyoming home and habits reflect Hallström’s experiences. “Robert Redford, an idol of mine,” he muses as the film begins, “I’ve been following his career for many years from Sweden, before I moved to the U.S. in 1997.”
The mythology of the West as a land of hardy, stoic immigrants makes sense in Redford’s body, which is surely weathered, if still sturdy. Speaking on a separate track spliced into Hallström’s, the director’s longtime husband-and-wife collaborators, producer Leslie Holleran and editor Andrew Mondshein both remark Einar’s reserve. “How cranky can Einar be and still keep him vulnerable, human, and sympathetic?” asks Holleran as she watches the character clump around the kitchen and his just-met 11-year-old daughter Griff (Becca Gardner), tries to keep out of his way. “We talked about that, and we were of a mind to say, Redford is always so likable as an actor that you can take it all the way out to the edge and be rough with a child and not be sharing and giving and still make that hairpin turn and come back and have a redemption.”
The redemption is the corny and predictable part, but the route to it is occasionally compelling, owing to Redford’s interactions with young Griff and also his best friend, Mitch (Morgan Freeman). Once a ranch hand, Mitch was mauled and badly scarred by a bear a year before, and Einar feels all kinds of guilt (the causal event is revealed late in the film, as if the plot specifics tell you anything you don’t already know). Watching them together, as Einar administers Mitch’s daily dose of morphine, Holleran pronounces, “Men of fewer words, they’re not needed.”
For his part, Hallström likes the subtler strokes, as when Redford sits in his truck and is unable to start it, his face shadowed by his cowboy hat, the truck pitched to create a canted frame, and then, briefly, his face hidden altogether as he leans on the steering wheel (“Goddamnit,” he mutters). “You just believe every second of that,” notes Hallström, and he’s right: it’s a scene that doesn’t precisely move the story, but expands on Einar, his sense of gruff independence, his sense that the diurnal obstacles never stop. (The DVD’s requisite making-of documentary suggests much the same thing, but takes eight minutes instead of Redford’s elegant 30 seconds.
Einar, the film shows repeatedly, is as damaged emotionally as Mitch is physically, owing mostly to the death of his excellent rodeo rider son, Griffin, in a car accident some 12 years ago. Unforgivably at the wheel, Griffin’s wife Jean (Jennifer Lopez), left town, not telling anyone she was pregnant at the time. And now, following a series of bad choices—including