2½ stars (out of four)
After "Million Dollar Baby," where he and Clint Eastwood squared off in an Olympic growling contest, it's a little unsettling to find Morgan Freeman portraying another angel on the shoulder of his white co-star, the top-billed cuss with a heart of gold.
In "An Unfinished Life" the serenely authoritative Freeman plays Mitch, longtime friend and cribbage partner of Wyoming rancher Einar (EYE-ner) Gilkyson, played by Robert Redford and his meticulous 12-day stubble. Survivor of a bear mauling, Mitch recuperates in the log cabin behind Einar's house with the help of morphine and his gruff pal's ministrations. Einar, meantime, receives a surprise visit from his estranged daughter-in-law, Jean (Jennifer Lopez). Fleeing an abusive boyfriend in Iowa, Jean and her 11-year-old daughter (Becca Gardner) have come seeking a month's refuge in Wyoming. Or rather, some highly photogenic parts of British Columbia and Alberta where the filming is cheaper, thanks to tax advantages.
Einar is alleged to be a flinty SOB, whisky-soaked in grief over his son's death. Griff died in a car accident years ago when Jean was behind the wheel. Driving through the Midwest, Jean and her daughter have a heart-to-heart. "I have a grandfather?" says Jean's daughter, also named Griff. "Not much of one," Jean replies.
But the audience thinks: Wait a minute. Hasn't Lopez seen the first five minutes of her own movie? With all those loving shots of a magnificently tight-lipped, cowboy-hatted Redfordwho looks more relaxed than he has on screen in a whilemilking a cow, assessing his patch of God's green acreage and doing the sort of middle-distance staring that bespeaks quiet authority and unassailable moral fiber, it's clear the grizzled block of ice will thaw on schedule. He comes pre-thawed, in fact. In this careful, dot-to-dot prestige picture, everybody learns their lessons on cue, the abusive ex gets his comeuppance and the bear (played by Bart the Bear) who nearly murdered Mitch is freed from confinement by Einar and Griff and allowed to follow his bliss back into the wild.
This is big sky country, and in Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg's screenplay, based on Mark Spragg's novel, it's located just north of the valley of poetic platitudes. Camryn Manheim plays the owner of the local diner where Jean finds a waitress job. Jean and the local sheriff (Josh Lucas) get it on, but this being a decorous movie, the movie barely takes notice.
The dialogue favors homespun wisdom in terse little bites. Early on, Redford mentions to Manheim that he still gets junk mail addressed to his late son. "Maybe the dead are flattered to get a letter. You ever think about that?" Interesting question, though it sounds more like a couple of screenwriters sittin' around talkin' rather than a working-class hash-slinger. "An Unfinished Life" is all about forgiveness, but some of the exchanges are easier to forgive than others.
The film was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, whose stately sense of craftsmanship has led to such tasteful, sanitized pictures as "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat." In many of his films, however, all the way back to "My Life as a Dog," Hallstrom has proven a real pro with teen and pre-teen actors. Here, he elicits a straight, true and affecting performance from Gardner, a blessedly unshowy presence who cuts through all the formulaic storytelling.
Nothing unexpected happens in "An Unfinished Life"the title comes from the engraving on the dead son's headstonebut Canada sure looks lovely, and the acting's pretty solid. Redford, trying his hand at a late-period Eastwood archetype, can do only so much to amplify a narrowly conceived role, but he's pleasantly stern company. Lopez manages to un-diva-fy herself and keep it real, or real-ish. And Freeman, acting opposite one bear (Redford) or another (Bart), can do no wrongthat is, unless he elects to play another one of these leathery sweeties sometime before 2009.
'An Unfinished Life'
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; screenplay by Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg; cinematography by Oliver Stapleton; production design by David Gropman; music by Christopher Young; edited by Andrew Mondshein; produced by Alan Ladd Jr., Kelliann Ladd and Leslie Holleran. A Miramax release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence including domestic abuse, and language).
Einar Gilkyson - Robert Redford
Jean Gilkyson - Jennifer Lopez
Mitch - Morgan Freeman
Crane - Josh Lucas
Griff Gilkyson - Becca Gardner
Gary - Damian Lewis
Nina - Camryn ManheimCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times