‘An Unfinished Life’ shows a family’s Continental Divide | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘An Unfinished Life’ shows a family’s Continental Divide

Howie Nave

Doane Gregory / Miramax FilmsAn impoverished and abused mother, Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), finds that the only option left to her and her pre-teen daughter (Zephyr Cove's Becca Gardner, left) is to move in with her father-in-law (Robert Redford) to live on his Wyoming ranch, even though they have been estranged for quite some time, in "An Unfinished Life."

An Unfinished Life, PG-13 (4.5 out of 5 bagels)

With summer gone (well, movie-wise it is), and the so-so returns at the box office, the blockbuster season turned out to be anything but. Notable exceptions would include “March of the Penguins” and last week’s “Constant Gardener.”

Usually at this time of the season we’re introduced to movies that traditionally have more substance in the storyline with acting that follows suit. The studios tend to release those movies that they feel wouldn’t be able to compete well with the so-called blockbusters slated for summer release. This is the time of year where I believe movies get to breathe somewhat, without some heavily promoted campaign that insists on cramming down our throats a “Must See!” movie foolishly touted as “Best of the Year” when the year isn’t even over yet. These are the movies that the studios dust off after the summer and before the highly anticipated Oscar dash that starts just before Thanksgiving, culminating through the last week of the year.

And here we are, greeting a movie that hasn’t been heavily publicized when really it should be – first off, because it has recent Oscar winner Morgan Freeman. You know a movie is worth seeing when Freeman is in it, even if the movie is not. Freeman has that special gift of making his characters stand out when the script is, at best, even-par. With “An Unfinished Life,” both the script and character are very good indeed.

Freeman’s character is Mitch Bradley, friend to Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford), who’s recuperating from a vicious attack inflicted by a grizzly bear. Einar wants to kill the bear but Mitch doesn’t. Einar reacts, yet Mitch is methodical and thinks things out. Later on, you will see a common thread develop as to why his thought process is this way. Think “wounded” and leaning toward “healed.” At any rate, Freeman’s performance, though understated, speaks volumes in the bigger scheme of things.

“An Unfinished Life” has been mentioned as a comeback movie for Jennifer Lopez. Comeback? This was shot nearly two years ago when “Gigli” was being released to rave reviews – Just kidding; “Gigli” was horrible.

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Miramax Films has been going through some growing pains, so “An Unfinished Life” (along with a slew of other finished projects) were shelved while things were being sorted out. Thank goodness we finally get to see this film, in part because Lopez here exhibits more range than she has in recent memory, taking on a rather serious role. Her character’s been through hell on several levels, losing her husband and then her spirit because of bad choices. She is convincing enough as Redford’s widowed daughter-in-law, Jean Gilkyson. There’s an uneasy relationship between the two that plays well, and Redford’s off-putting attitude toward her adds to the tension, telling of a past filled with pain. She is that and more. She’s damaged goods, actually. My only criticism of her role is not so much her acting, but the fact that she’s too gorgeous for the character. It’s like Halle Berry in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” where she tried to unglamorize her “look” so that she could play the battered victim with believability. As I recall, she won the Oscar for that performance.

Robert Redford rarely turns in a bad performance and, like Morgan Freeman, is so well suited here in the elder statesman role of hardened rancher Einar Gilkyson. He has aged well and the role fits him like a seasoned, tailor-made pair of boots. His caustic, cynical view of life is only compounded by the death of his son, for which he blames Jean. But Jean has another surprise for him.

And then there’s Lake Tahoe’s Becca Gardner. A sophomore at Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove, this is Becca’s first feature-length motion picture. Her character, to me, is the foundation of the story that will bind the divided family. How divided? Well, put it this way: The Continental Divide appears an easier challenge than this family’s feelings toward one another.

Gardner (who was 13 at the time) plays Einar’s granddaughter, Griff Gilkyson. Einar didn’t realize until now that his late son had fathered a daughter. It has taken all of these years before Jean would allow him the gift of knowing his granddaughter. At the end of her emotional rope, her last resort is reconnecting with her estranged father-in-law and trying to heal both of them through Griff. Call it a game of chance that is cause-and-effect, if you will.

Gardner’s role shows a real depth at her age, not just as a newcomer to the screen but also because of her co-stars. One would think it could have been so intimidating to be in the company of such legends as Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford – maybe mesmerized by J-Lo – but young Becca probably impressed her co-stars instead with her acting abilities. In fact, the best scenes are with her. There’s a balance here where all of the actors are very natural and nothing forced or contrived.

It should be noted that Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, along with television’s “The Practice” star Camryn Manheim, also turn in fine performances. A nice little six degrees of separation here, as young Becca also appeared on an episode of “The Practice” with series regular Manheim as Ellenor.

The cinematography is breathtaking, with British Columbia substituting for a very rural Wyoming. Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director who gave us “The Cider House Rules” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” works the script well here that was penned by Mark and Virginia Korus Spragg. He has a keen knack for bringing out the best in his actors giving a richness in his characters. This movie follows in that tradition.

“An Unfinished Life,” directed by Lasse Hallström, is rated PG-13 for some violence including domestic abuse and language.

The cast includes Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Camryn Manheim and Becca Gardner. It clocks in at a very tight 109 minutes.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv Comedy Club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada. He co-hosts the morning show on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8 and weekends on KMTN television here in South Lake Tahoe.