Unfinished Life: Melodrama Starring Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez

“An Unfinished Life” is a cross between “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “On Golden Pond,” with a touch of “True Grit” and other Western vehicles that John Wayne used to do at the end of his career. Long on the shelf, Lasse Hallstrom’s picture was shot two years ago and is now being released by Miramax, before the Weinstein brothers part ways from their old parent company, Disney, October 1.

Dull for the most part, “An Unfinished Life” is a harmless movie about redemption and forgiveness, of self as well as others. The forgiveness extends beyond the matrix of human relationships to include a man-animal ambivalent bond, in this case a grizzly bear that walks around town as if it were its natural habitat.

The best thing about this listless film is Robert Redford’s performance in the lead role, one of his strongest in a long time, and one that brings to mind earlier Western roles in “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Electric Horseman,” and “The Horse Whisperer.”

The story intersects the lives of two very different sets of people who end up forming a new type of family, based on both biological and sociological foundations. The first set consists of Einar Gilkyson (Redford) and his hired hand and closest friend, Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who have lived and worked together for forty years on Einar’s ranch in northwestern Wyoming.

The second set is composed of Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), Einar’s daughter-in-law, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Griff (Becca Gardner), who are escaping abusive relationships with Jean’s boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis). A young widow, Jean still feels anguished and guilt-ridden over the death of her husband in a car accident since she was the driver that night.

The organizational principle of the text is that of couples, or criss-crossing of couples. And though the yarn is utterly predictable, there’s an element of joy in trying to figure out how, when, and which couples will cross paths together.

The screenplay, written by husband-and-wife Mark Spragg (who wrote “Where Rivers Change Direction”) and Virginia Spragg is self-reflexive and full of references to old movies and to its stars’ former appearances. Since there’s plenty of time to think during the deliberately-paced saga, you will inevitably engage in recalling other, better films of the actors involved.

Hence, the relationship between Einar and Mitch echoes that between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby,” and Lopez’s abused woman recalls her similar role in Michael Apted’s “Enough,” in which she also ran away with her daughter hoping to start a new life.

Drawing in part on the Spraggs’ life at their wilderness home, outside Yellowstone National Park, the yarn concerns older men, their essential wisdom, and the burden of carrying a long, tough life on their shoulders. But it’s also a coming-of-age story of Griffin and her mother Jean.

The movie is soaked in middlebrow, therapeutic sensibility, which has become Hallstrom’s specialty, as evident in “Chocolat” and “The Shipping News,” and it may also reflect the background of co-writer Virginia Spragg, who’s a former therapist.

The context, the contemporary Wild West, may be new, but the story is overly familiar. It doesn’t help much knowing that the events in the screenplay are based on actual events since they are clich-ridden. “Unfinished Life” strives for, but seldom achieves, a poetic tone.

Most of Hallstrom’s films are character-driven stories of dysfunctional families, and this one is no different. By now, he has done too many dramas about forgiveness, and too many films about families torn apart by a tragedy and in need to be brought back together (Remember “What’s Easting Gilbert Grape”). Here, the tragedy that tears the family apart is the death of Einar’s son, and the catalyst that brings the family together again is Griff, through the special bond she develops with her crusty grandfather.

The film’s most interesting relationship is that of Einar and Mitch, which is basically a love story between two powerful men. “Unfinished Life” shows the kind of nurturing, care, and intimacy not usually seen in American movies about male camaraderie. This is the most unique part of this story, so unique in fact that at first the precocious Griff suspects Einar and Mitch are gay. The men’s hearty laughter when they hear her comment offers one of the film’s few spontaneous moments.

Einar represents a man of the land, who has chosen to live outdoors and is uncomfortable with the political correctness of the modern world. He is still so wounded and tortured by the death of his only son that it almost ruins his land, his family, his relationships–and himself.

It’s nice to observe on screen ranching, which has become almost obsolete, and agriculture, once a foundation of our culture but now pushed aside by technology and real estate. Redford grew up with characters like Einar and he seems to understand them well, from the inside. He plays Einar as an inner-directed man who lives by his code of honor.

Einar’s son was his life and when he lost him, he literally shut down and stopped tending to his ranch. The only companionship he has is Mitch. Einar goes into a retreat where he can’t grow or forgive, creating a wall around him. Forgiving is tough for a man like Einar, because it means admitting that he might be wrong in blaming Jean. It’s not until his granddaughter comes into his life that Einar is given a reason to open up againto live.

Morgan Freeman, who had worked with Redford before (on “Bruubaker”), is perfectly cast as Mitch, and there is good rapport between him and Redford as men who know each other well down to quirks and temperaments. Mitch and Einar’s relationship is special because of its longevity; they’ve become co-dependent and intimate like brothers.

Having been mauled by the bear, a major physical and psychological trauma has changed Mitch. A previously vigorous, hard-working man, he’s now bedridden, helpless, and useless. But with time, Mitch begins to mellow, while watching his friend Einar deteriorates along with him. Mitch is the movie’s conscience: In spite of being savaged by a bear, he asks to release the bear as some sort of redemption. And by doing so, he’s encouraging Einar to release himself from his grief and prison.

Jean’s decision to go back to her father-in-law’s ranch comes out of desperation; she has no place else to go. And though she can’t quite get her own life together, she’s sensitive and vulnerable enough to know that she has to do something right for her daughter. Eager to provide a more decent life for her and Griff, she’s a good mom who continues to make bad choices.

Sadly, Lopez seems unable to find anything deep or interesting about her character: a sexual, flawed woman who feels vulnerable and guilty and still punishes herself for past events. Lopez, who has played similar roles before, gives a one-dimensional performance. Rumors have been circulating in town about how the editors have cut her part and worked around her. And, indeed, even in scenes that “belong” to her, it’s Redford who gets the close-up.

Jean’s daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) is a tough and resilient tomboy, and she’s the one who starts everything in motion. Gardner, who has the look of a young girl with maturity beyond her age, is well cast. Hallstrom, who has reputation of working well with children (“My Life as a Dog” is still his best film), coaxes an unsentimental performance from her.

The film’s romantic interest is provided by Crane (Josh Lucas), the local sheriff who’s innocent and provincial in the way that small-town characters are. Crane has inherited the same ethics that Einar represents. He understands that no matter what he says or does, Einar will break the law and take matters into his hands when it comes to defending Jean against the threatening Gary.

To balance the story’s male camaraderie, “Unfinished Life,” offers a friend for Jean, Nina (Camryn Manheim), a kind woman who despite tragedy in her own life has remained generous. Nina offers Jean a job at her diner, a place to sleep, and a shoulder to cry on.

Watching the women together you crave for the humor and intimacy that prevailed between Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd as two working-class waitresses, bruised by men, in Scorsese’s superior chic flick, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” But, alas, the only humor in the film comes from the interaction between Einar and Mitch, and Einar and Griff.

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, working for the third time with Hallstrom, creates images that translate the drama into visual terms. As the film moves from tension and bleakness to a brighter ending, the lighting shifts from the dramatic and foreboding to a brighter and more pleasant one. Staleton’s use of space and shadows adds a sense of clarity to the story.

Hallstrom and production designer David Gropman (in their fifth collaboration) were inspired by black-and-white photographs of Wyoming ranches in Wyoming, trying to register a similar effect in color. The film was shot in British Columbia, whose landscape resembles Wyoming, and in the town of Ashcroft, Wyoming, which doubled for Ishawood, the story’s locale.

Set against the dramatic high-desert landscape, the ranch is one of the last family-owned cattle ranches in the region. To maintain the unkempt, desolate look of Einar’s ranch, the fourth-generation owners moved out of their place.