An Unfinished Life — thus reads the epitaph on the gravestone of Griffin Gilkyson, husband, father, son, and friend, killed at age 21 in a freak car accident in Calgary. In Robert Redford’s current vehicle, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the lives of two sets of people, separated since Griffin’s death, reconverge in and near a small Wyoming town. Violence, both emotional and physical, unfolds against the visually sublime background of the Rocky Mountains.
Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), decked out in authentic mountain-man flannel shirts, has withdrawn into himself and allowed his ranch to fall into disrepair. Einar is angry at the world, in particular at his daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), whom he blames for his son’s death. In fact, Einar is so angry he rejects anything connected to his daughter-in-law. For poetic justice, he is saddled with taking care of his long-time friend, the hired hand Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Mitch just happened to have gotten mauled by a bear one year previously. He is now an invalid, a gentle, kindly, insightful invalid with the power to propel characters to their own redemption.
Meanwhile, the widowed daughter-in-law Jean has gone from one bad news boyfriend to another and is finally forced to flee her home in the Midwest and the current boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) to save herself and her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner). With a seeming knack for always choosing exactly the wrong man, she seeks refuge in Wyoming with her estranged father-in-law, Einar. Once there, however, granddaughter Griff begins melting everyone’s hearts. And there are some pretty tough cowboy hearts in need of softening up.
Jean confronts Einar. Einar confronts Jean. Jeans confronts Gary. Mitch confronts his bear, Einar confronts his son’s ghost. Griff confronts her inner tomboy. Along the way, everyone proves his or her true grit. In true western style cliche, even good-guy violence wins out over bad-guy violence, in each and every altercation. The soft-masculine names given to the male characters seem to underscore the film’s jarring pro-gun and pro-feminist mixed message. Redford has not made another Unforgiven, though the platonic love affair between Einar and Mitch brings up warm-fuzzy images of Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall) in Second-Hand Lions.
Redford and Freeman play Hollywood actors imitating mountain men. Redford plays himself and Freeman seems to be recapping his role as God in Bruce Almighty. Character actress Camryn Manheim is winning as the waitress Nina. Jennifer Lopez as Jean delivers a proficient performance as virile thirty-something men, dead and alive, buzz around her character. In the end Jean learns to give up all her hot-headed bad-boy redheads to settle down with the sexy and righteous, and very blond, Sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Locus).
The Rockies take on an undeniably Sierra Club note card perfection. Einar’s ranch becomes folksy-decrepit a la Norman Rockwell. The saccharine-coated treatment of people struggling to learn how to forgive themselves and others takes on the ring of sentimental greetings inside a Hallmark card. Thankfully, 13-year-old newcomer Becca Gardner in the role of Griff saves what would otherwise be a mildly distracting made-for-television movie. An Unfinished Life plays much more palatably as a young girl’s coming-of-age story. Accolades go to Becca Gardner, who out-acts the rest of this all-star cast.