Lasse Halllstrom's newest film "An Unfinished Life" is being dumped by the studio. The first few weeks of September are always a dumping ground. People are too busy with "Back to School" to get excited about movies, so they stay away. The studios clear out some backlog, usually crap, waiting for attendance to pick up. While "An Unfinished Life" is certainly not groundbreaking, it is a very good film, and deserves some audience.
From the moment we realize Redford's crusty old rancher character is going to take in his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, you will be able to predict just about every moment of the extremely predictable story. Something else needs to catch our attention, to keep us watching. That "something" is the performances.
While the stories of Lasse Hallstrom's films ("The Cider House Rules", "Chocolat", "The Shipping News") may veer towards the schmaltzy, maudlin and/ or predictable, he is generally able to get interesting performances from his actors. In "The Cider House Rules", Michael Caine brought his character to life, earning another Academy Award and overshadowing his co-stars, Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron. In "Chocolat", Juliette Binoche shined, once again. In "An Unfinished Life", all four leads do a very good job.
Robert Redford ("Spy Game"), surprisingly, is the biggest revelation. As the central character, he is in perhaps 80% of the film, so he is onscreen for a long time, allowing his character to develop the most fully. Once he establishes how "crusty" and "set in his ways" Einar is, Redford is able to start revealing the more subtle aspects of his character. The fact that he has to care for both a sick person and his granddaughter may seem overdone, and it is, but this also gives his character the most opportunity for change. Redford deserves credit for making this believable and watch able. Throughout, he is always ornery and gruff, yet when his character is caring for Mitch, we understand that Mitch is perhaps the one person who gets him and won't put up with any of his crap. As he interacts with his granddaughter, he lightens up a bit when he realizes she is well-mannered. The performance is subtle, well-rounded and may be some of Redford's best work in years.
Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby") has played the "wise sage" role many times and always does a good job. He doesn't add a lot to the character in this film, but his role is central to the rest of the film. Without his character, there would be little balance and we wouldn't be as invested in the other characters. His character's subplot is interesting; because he was mauled by this bear, he now has a connection with the bear and feels responsible for the animal.
Becca Gardner does a very good job of creating the character of Griff, Einar's granddaughter. She is a tough little girl (without being overly precocious) and doesn't shy away from either of the older gentleman. This is a good example of her upbringing and helps to make her character and her mom's character more real. Jean's (Lopez) series of abusive relationships has made Griff a tougher person because she has to look out for herself, at times, and help her mom make the right decisions.
Lopez ("Monster-In-Law") also does a good, fairly consistent job. She is very believable for most of the film. Later, as she relates how her parents moved from Mexico and settled in San Antonio, her character breaks into a Texas accent. When this scene is over, the accent disappears just as quickly. This is really the only false note in her character, in any of the characters for that matter.
Josh Lucas and Camryn Manheim play locals in the small Montana town who help Jean and have an impact on her life. Both are also good.
As "Unfinished" progresses, you get to know the characters and feel for them.
The film was finished approximately two to three years ago, but Miramax held it for a while and then they went through a period of unsettlement as the founding Weinstein Brothers parted ways with the company they founded and Disney, the company that purchased Miramax a number of years ago. It is also a difficult film to sell in the current marketplace. The lead is 68 and his friend is also 68, not exactly the type of marquee value likely to attract that all important 13 - 24 male demographic. The fact that the film contains no car chases, no visual nudity, no visual sex and no special effects doesn't help either. Hopefully, the rest of us, who appreciate fine acting, will make it to this film and make that all important demographic a little less important.