Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) isn’t much for small talk. Stoic, stubborn, and stuck in his ways, he spends his days on his Wyoming ranch milking cows, tinkering with his ancient pickup, or porch-sitting with his best friend and erstwhile ranch hand Mitch (Morgan Freeman). Folks in town mostly keep out of Einar’s way, though the waitress down at the diner, Nina (Camryn Manheim) likes him fine. She accepts his surliness along with his quiet generosity, because she understands that he’s in pain.
His twist-up of grief and anguish stems from a backstory that comes quickly to the surface, namely, his excellent rodeo rider son died in a car accident some 12 years ago. Unforgivably at the wheel, the son’s wife Jean (Jennifer Lopez), left town and never looked back. Until now. An Unfinished Life begins as she decides at last to leave her abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) in Iowa and land on Einar’s weathered wood porch-step. The scene with Gary shows them both in close-up and dark shadows, almost hiding her bruised face; the trek west involves a car that breaks down and a bus that stops at a buildingless fork on the highway. As she and Einar stand on opposite sides of the wide frame, he greets her succinctly: “I don’t want you here” “At least,” she says, her voice cupie-doll-steady, “We agree on something.”
And this isn’t the half of it. Lasse Hallström’s film, written by Mark and Virginia Korus Spragg, is full of wide spaces, squelched emotions, and gigantic metaphors. As delicate as the subject matter may be — grief that has stretched over a decade, resentment tinged with guilt — the adults who feel so strongly appear incapable of sorting out much of anything, least of all appropriate “targets.” And yet, as unhappy as they are, Einar and Jean will be moved and instructed by the example of precocious, generous 11-year-old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), Jean’s daughter with the Dead Son. As Jean hadn’t informed Einar that he even had a granddaughter, their sudden arrival is doubly stunning and maddening. He sends them to live in a basement storage room, thinking — as does Jean — that as soon as she can make enough cash waiting tables at Nina’s diner, they’ll be on their way and Einar will be back to his routine.
This routine includes daily chats with the Dead Son, buried on a hill overlooking the house, and daily morphine injections for Mitch, badly scarred and partly incapacitated since his run-in with a grizzly bear a while back. Mitch sees the problem Jean poses for the resolutely unforgiving Einar (“Is her being here going to ruin you?”), but also sees in Griff a chance at a new perspective. Griff soon makes herself useful by making Mitch’s lunches and handing wrenches to Einar while he works on the truck; he even introduces her to her father (killed before she was born) on the hill, which gets her to thinking about the men her mother has been bringing home, Gary only the latest of a series of losers.
This recent background haunts Griff in a couple of ways, first when Jean takes up with Sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas) and second when Gary turns up in town professing his desire for Jean. The film hardly integrates either character (Gary especially suffers from the illogic of being a Plot Device), but Crane does provide a semblance of rational thought amid the swirl of anger and loss that surrounds Jean and Einar. Crane also helps to shape the film’s largest looming metaphor, the grizzly Mitch calls “my bear.” It lumbers back into town on the very day Jean arrives, wandering through alleys and startling children on bikes. Though Einar means to shoot the bear dead, Crane carts it off to a one-woman “zoo,” so it can languish in a cage and haunt both Einar and Mitch.
Mitch’s response to the bear’s capture is at once immediate and considered: he wants Einar to visit it, to feed it, and eventually, to set it free. That is, he embodies and articulates the sort of forgiveness that Einar can’t even imagine. The bear, Mitch insists, was just doing what bears do, and the attack was their fault (Einar was with his friend at the time) for stumbling onto the beast’s turf at the wrong time. Wise, kind, and crusty-cozy with Einar, Mitch is the sort of role for which Freeman is best known and rewarded (in affect and inflection, he’s related to Freeman’s character in Million Dollar Baby), the earthy version of the magical Negro, in place to save the difficult white guy’s soul.
He does this with advice (for instance, be nice to Griff, which Einar rejects then absorbs in spite of himself) and with descriptions of his nighttime dreams, each a valuable lesson wrapped up in figurative imagery — he dreams about the sea (it “tastes like woman”) and that he can fly, so high that he can see the meaning of life (“From up there, you could see all there is, and it looked like there was a reason for everything”). Such boggy homilies might push Einar along the road to forgiveness, but they don’t help An Unfinished Life. For all its attention to fading landscapes and independence, cowboys and loyalties, the movie is more quaintly melodramatic than adventurous.