Making the Grades
The bruised face of Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) immediately tells us she's already offered far too much patience to her abusive boyfriend. Finally recognizing she needs to put as many miles as possible between them, she packs up her belongings and young child Griff (Becca Gardner), and sets her course for the only place of refuge she can think of--the Wyoming home of her father-in-law, and the resting place of her late husband.
The estranged daughter-in-law isn't met with open arms by the crusty ranchman. Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) didn't know he had a granddaughter, and is hesitant to let the desperate pair in the door of his ramshackle house. As the dialogue churns, we are made aware that Einar has spent the last decade blaming Jean for the untimely death of his son.
But this is obviously a movie where lessons are about to unfold, and the teacher is Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman). A farm hand to Einar, the loyal worker was the recipient of a grizzly's anger after he attempted to stop the animal from eating a calf. A year later, Mitch is still smarting from the pain, and depends heavily on his boss's seemingly uncharacteristic compassion. A daily routine of rubbing lotion on his mangled back, giving him a shot of painkiller, and helping him dress and shave, provide ample opportunity for the now disabled man to give his stubborn superior a piece of his wisdom.
These moments bond Redford and Freeman together to form the core of this movie. Their performances are why we are watching--and enjoying--a story we've seen before with an ending that's as sure as death itself. The seasoned actors work comfortably together in a humorous, touching, and believable way. They yell and argue at each other, yet their friendship is far too deep to let a few heated words get in the way, and that's why we believe Mitch is the only person on Earth capable of softening Einar attitude towards Jean. Young Becca Gardner is also exceptional, especially considering her limited screen experience.
The film's greatest flaw is its inclusion of the stereotypical bad-guy-who-won't-quit. Jean's boyfriend drives thousands of miles to reclaim his woman, providing some tense moments, brief physical altercations, and vengeance. Unnecessary characters such as these are easy pickings for movie heroes like Einar, but we already knew he was tough after rescuing a waitress from some thugs at the local diner.
Conversely, the budding romance between Jean and the local sheriff (Josh Lucas) does make the story more interesting, but delivers the movie's one short moment of sexuality, where we see the two intimately engaged in the sheriff's SUV. (Presumably the writers wanted us to recognize Jean wasn't the type to hold back on sharing herself with a new man.) This incident also leads Einar to use a derogatory sexual term when discussing his daughter-in-law's behavior. In other scenes, he and Mitch cuss up a regular but milder assortment of profanities.
Yet these content concerns are overshadowed by the object lesson Mitch delivers. The offending bear that revenged his body is caged at a local zoo, and he insists Einar regularly visit it and give it fresh meat. Eventually, he asks his friend to do what is necessary to return the creature to the wild, providing an effective metaphor for the change of heart required from Einar, and making it worth finishing this Unfinished Life.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about An Unfinished Life.
After Griff detects her mother is attracted to another man, she accuses the woman of only thinking about herself, and not considering her daughter’s needs. Is this a fair accusation? Do you always stop to consider how your actions may affect others beside yourself?
After a few days of observing Einar caring for Mitch, young Griff asks them if they are gay. How has does this reflect society’s changing perspective of seeing two people of the same gender together?