- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

“An Unfinished Life” is methodically unpeeled like a piece of fruit, with the hope that what is revealed is juicy enough to compensate for the rote performances of its prestige cast.

Robert Redford, Lord of the Sundance, plays Einar Gilkyson, a grizzled Wyoming rancher who’s bitter at life and nursing a fragile sobriety. Morgan Freeman is, yet again, the black angel, adding Mr. Redford to his list of magical soul rescues. He plays Einar’s only friend and ranch hand Mitch, the victim of a bear-mauling and the movie’s bedridden moral compass. The two relate to one another like an elderly married couple — Einar injects Mitch every morning with morphine; Mitch complains that Einar is a miserable old coot.

That does it for the prestige cast; the movie is rounded out with the pretty young faces of Jennifer Lopez and Paul-Newman-wannabe Josh Lucas. They play, respectively, the battered Midwestern girl Jean and the county sheriff. Oh, and there’s a grizzly bear, too, a beast so weighed down with leaden existential metaphors it’s a wonder he manages to roar like he does.

After fleeing with daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) from an abusive boyfriend (red-haired and wild-eyed Damian Lewis), Jean has no one to turn to but her father-in-law Einar, from whom she’s been estranged since a car accident in which her husband was killed 10 years before the movie begins.

As alluded to above, “Life,” written for the screen by novelist Mark Spragg and wife Virginia Korus Spragg, drops crucial plot points along the way, inviting viewers to piece them together as though they’re a map of the past.

In the hands of director Lasse Hallstrom, this is done with great gravity, almost ceremonially, to the point that it detracts from one of the film’s virtues: its quiet depiction of both the idyllic enchantment and redneck hassles of life as it’s lived in this craggy Wyoming vale. Here, everyone knows everyone, and drunk cowpokes bother waitresses with lassoes. (“Life” was filmed in British Columbia, but one can easily imagine the Jackson Hole habitue Dick Cheney fishing here.)

Miss Lopez and her impeccable hair are wildly out of place — we’re to believe she’s from El Paso and toured the rodeo circuit — but the famously fussy singer-actress manages not to make too much of a nuisance of herself.

The sweetly heartbreaking core of the movie is Einar’s interaction with the granddaughter he never knew he had. At first, he’s as brusquely dismissive toward her as he is of his former daughter-in-law. But spirited, spunky Griff progressively, and predictably, melts Einar’s heart — in much the same way that time has melted the flesh on Mr. Redford’s face.

The old golden boy is pretty charming here, one has to admit. He wears one-piece long johns, milks cows, mumbles to himself and forgets to shave at least every other day. And where the film oversells its central themes of frontier manhood and the letting go of demons, Mr. Redford is there to bat cleanup with his gruff humor and taciturn wisdom.

When Mitch asks Einar to be buried next to Einar’s son, Einar replies, “Don’t you think you ought to die first?”

Sounds like a fair justification of an unfinished life to me. Funny how it didn’t require the histrionics of a grizzly bear.

**

TITLE: “An Unfinished Life”

RATING: PG-13 (Violence, including scene of domestic abuse; profanity; brief sexuality)

CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Produced by Leslie Holleran, Alan Ladd Jr. and Kelliann Ladd. Written by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg. Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton. Original music by Deborah Lurie.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.miramax.com/anunfinishedlife

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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