An Unfinished Life

“An Unfinished Life” reads the epitaph on the lone gravestone of Griffin Gilkyson, the son of Wyoming rancher Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford). With his grief and anger running at full throttle even after ten years, Einar’s ranch has fallen to ruin, along with his life.

Also in mourning is Griffin’s widow, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), who resides in Iowa with her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) and an abusive beau. Jean makes an escape, taking her daughter and her facial bruises to Wyoming to seek refuge with her father-in-law, Einar. The aging rancher tells Jean and his newfound granddaughter they are not welcome. But there’s no turning back for Jean. Nor for us. We’re hooked.

Filmed in Canada, the panoramic scenery is almost reason to see the film. But the topper is the feisty banter between Einar and his ranch hand Mitch (Morgan Freeman), about everything from the chance of rain to Einar’s anger to Mitch’s morphine injections since being mauled by a bear. The breath of fresh air in this suffering little community is provided by young Griff, whose bold curiosity pierces the wall around Einar’s grief-stricken heart.

Winner of the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award for his memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, screenwriter Mark Spragg makes dialogue sing in this ever-so-human drama based on his Wyoming youth. Spragg was so taken by his own screen characters that he proceeded to write An Unfinished Life as a novel, setting a new precedent for a book based on a screenplay.

Many critics accuse this film of being cliché. I disagree. But maybe their reactions were spurred by production decisions beyond the writer’s control. Casting Freeman as Mitch sends up a Hollywood flare since Mitch happens to be a wise philosopher, the same role Freeman has played in every film since Shawshank. And the familiar setting revisits a previous drama starring Redford as a rancher, The Horse Whisperer, making us wonder if we’ve been here before. Perhaps a new face would have drawn more satisfied reviews.

But forget the critics. Redford is pretty darn convincing and we share his pain. And personally, I never tired of Mitch’s simple revelatory observations. While the trajectory is not unpredictable, the story’s hidden details emerge slowly, one by one, affording us an element of hope and surprise. An Unfinished Life ropes us in and yanks on our common humanity, exploring some of our most painful emotions and the moments in life we wish we could change. Hang in there, pardners, it’s well worth the ride. B+

The Constant Gardener: C

BY patricia draznin

The big bad pharmaceuticals are at it again, this time dispensing experimental drugs in the villages of Africa. This romantic thriller involves more romance than thrills, but deserves credit for trying to entertain us with suspense and morality. I wish I could say it kept me on the edge of my seat. But honestly, I never got pulled into the story enough to care.

Based on the novel by John Le Carré, The Constant Gardener stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, the quiet career diplomat who loves gardening, and Rachel Weisz as Justin’s wife Tessa, an outspoken activist against the establishment. Any establishment. The story opens in Kenya with Tessa departing on a junket with her local cohort Arnold, but Justin is called soon after to identify her body. Tessa has been murdered. Boo-hoo?

We flash back to the first meeting of Tessa and Justin, followed by its consummation, followed by Tessa’s strong suggestion that Justin take her with him to Africa as his wife. This was problematic, introducing us to pivotal characters so superficially that they barely exist. In Tessa’s case it’s deliberate; we are not supposed to know her until the movie ends. But how about Justin? Anybody. The Key Grip. It’s lonely out here; give us some reason to watch the movie.

In Kenya, the lovely Tessa becomes a rebel advocate for the natives, whom she believes are victims of a drug conspiracy that is costing their lives. Her fearlessness and flippancy are the stuff that only fiction is made of, so she remains a genuine cardboard personality. The story reveals choice details in flashbacks and then proceeds forward. Justin begins to investigate Tessa’s murder and her secret activities, risking his own life to learn the truth and to understand the wife he hardly got to know. Welcome to the club, Justin.

The strengths of this movie lie in its fine cast and its colorful African backdrop. And it dares to shoot in raw lighting or whatever cinematographers call it, the kind that shows real faces with freckles and flaws. Perhaps Le Carré’s bestseller succeeded where the movie did not. But the whimsical treatment of a heavy topic took the life out of a potentially engaging film.