Mitch Bradley has been mauled by a bear. Einar Gilkyson has been mauled by life. Ever since Einar's only son died in a car accident 12 years earlier, the Wyoming rancher has lived a bitter life that has driven away almost everyone who ever loved him, including his wife. Only Mitch remains, a ranch hand and lifelong friend who relies on Einar’s care after tangling with a grizzly.
You'd think Einar might be happy when his widowed daughter-in-law, Jean, shows up needing his help. In tow is 11-year-old Griff, a granddaughter Einar never knew existed, but Einar is unmoved. He hates Jean, blaming her for the wreck that killed his son. For her part, Jean knows Einar can't stand the thought of her, but she's broke and fleeing an abusive boyfriend, and the only family she has left in the world is Einar.
Eventually, it's Griff’s wide-eyed innocence that begins to worm its way into Einar’s crusty heart, and Mitch’s gentle prodding also helps break him out of his shell. What follows is a story about family, forgiveness and coming to terms with life as it happens.
Despite having plenty to be angry and bitter about, Mitch refuses to give in to negativism. And while it’s strange to speak of “forgiving” a wild animal, Mitch seems to do just that and seeks what’s best for the bear. (“The bear was just doing what bears do,” Mitch says.) An exception to Einar’s bitter outlook is how he takes care of Mitch, massaging ointment into his wounds, administering pain medicine, serving him meals and being an all-round friend. Indeed, Einar’s treatment of Mitch is the personification of the self-giving love spoken of in Scripture. Einar eventually comes to see that he needs to seek forgiveness from Mitch, which leads him to see that he should also forgive Jean.
Griff doesn’t let Einar’s bad attitude dissuade her from trying to break through his tough exterior. One of Jean's co-workers, Nina, generously offers her home to Jean and Griff without asking anything in return.
The movie makes it crystal clear how wrong it is for men to hit the women they love, be they wives or girlfriends. (Its method of communicating that truth is brutal, though. More on that in "Violent Content.")
Einar jokes about dying, saying, “Maybe I’ll send you a postcard from the other side.” He also says, “I don’t like some guy trying to sell his angle on God.” While not explicitly spiritual, Einar spends a lot of time at his son’s grave, talking to him. Einar asks Mitch, “You think the dead care about our lives?” Mitch answers, “Yeah, they even forgive us our sins.” Mitch frequently discusses his dreams, and at the end of the film he describes a dream where he was flying high over the ranch (“From up there I could see there’s a reason for everything”).
It doesn’t take long for Jean to enter into a sexual relationship with the sheriff. In one scene, it’s implied they’re having sex in the sheriff’s SUV. Einar confronts Jean, “Are you screwing Crane Curtis for protection or sport?”
Griff blurts out her assumption that one of her teachers is a lesbian. She also mistakenly thinks Einar and Mitch are homosexual because they live together. (In truth, Mitch lives in the bunkhouse and Einar in the main house.). The two men laugh at the suggestion and have a bit of fun with it, complementing each other on physical characteristics, but the ultimate message in the exchange is a positive one: Men can love each other and care deeply for each other without being gay. Still, dialogue includes endorsements of those who do participate in gay relationships ("I mean it's cool, everybody needs love," Griff says. Einar replies, "You've got that right, little girl").
While not sexual in any way, it's still worth noting that two scenes show Mitch having his pants and underwear pulled down for a morphine injection in his buttocks. What does have sexual overtones is Mitch's recounting of one of his dreams; he makes an oblique comment about oral sex with a woman. Jean frequently wears low-cut blouses. Einar comes to the rescue of a waitress who is being sexually (and physically) harassed by two drunken cowboys. ...
He clubs both with a coffee pot and then holds a knife to one man’s throat, threatening to kill him if he ever harasses her again.
Jean's most recent ex, Gary, has an explosive temper. At the beginning of the movie Jean has a bruise on her face where Gary had presumably hit her. In a later scene Jean punches him in self-defense. He then backhands her, grabs Griff and drags her to his car. Einar comes to the rescue, shooting out the tires and engine block of Gary’s car. He then smashes through the glass with the rifle butt, drags Gary’s head through the window and knees him in the face. He also punches him several times—hard enough that you think Gary might be dead. (In an earlier scene Einar had pointed the rifle at Gary and threatened to kill him if he ever came back.)
The bear knocks Einar to the ground. It growls and charges at Mitch but does not complete the attack. In a fit of anger, Einar smashes a chair against a post. Gary kicks a table.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mitch requires regular injections of morphine. Einar is a recovering alcoholic, but he keeps bottles of booze stashed around his ranch. On occasion he pulls out an unopened bottle, telling Mitch, “Sometimes I just like to look at it.” Later, distraught over a turn of events, he finally gives in and starts to drink from one of the bottles. [Spoiler Warning] Einar was, by his own admission, a “falling-down drunk." And he was intoxicated when Mitch was mauled. Consquently he was unable to save Mitch, and his inaction turns out to be the source of much of the guilt he possesses—guilt that he tries to project onto Jean.
Einar goes into a bar but orders a club soda. Nina says of two drunken cowboys, “It must be hard to be that drunk this early in the morning.” Einar replies, “Not if you’ve been drinking all night.” Nina adds, “You would know.” Gary is a chain smoker and in one scene drinks a beer.
An Unfinished Life is a well-written, engaging story. The process by which Griff and Mitch gradually draw Einar out of his self-imposed prison of bitterness is truly moving. It turns out the unfinished life was not Einar’s son’s but his own.
Director Lasse Hallström is famous for teasing all sides of an issue. In The Cider House Rules he took on abortion. In Chocolat he tackled religion. And if he had brought that same sensibility to An Unfinished Life he would have spent half the movie exploring the motivations for domestic abuse. He doesn't. Here, he's only interested in providing a cathartic payback of sorts for everyone who has ever been touched by it. So, as if sensing that he needed another subject to explore while blasting abusers, he and writers Mark Spragg and Virginia Korus Spragg incorporated a monumentally terrifying bear to serve as a metaphor for the way life can mess you up. It works. At least it did for me.
The luscious cinematography and the interaction of the two heavyweight actors Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman are also gratifying to witness. (Incidentally, Jennifer Lopez comes off as a bit of a lightweight next to them.) Like Cinderella Man, though, viewers interested in the film's probing lessons on life, death, abuse and relationships are made to endure crudity and profanity. The movie also exhibits a cavalier attitude toward illicit sex and one brutal beating that goes too far.