We never meet Griff Gilkyson - he's shown in outdated photographs and discussed frequently - though his memory rages in the hearts of three emotionally damaged characters. His death is the reason director Lasse Hallström titled his latest drama An Unfinished Life.
Griff's pregnant wife, Jean (Jenifer Lopez), was behind the wheel the night the couple's car flipped six times. Griff's father, Einar (Robert Redford), crawled into the nearest liquor bottle to mourn his dead son and has yet to forgive Jean for an accident she'd give anything to take back. The couple's daughter, now 11 and also named Griff (Becca Gardner), wants to know her late father so she's able to properly miss him.
Extenuating circumstances push Jean back to Einar's Wyoming ranch, which he shares with his lifelong friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman, doing his "wise old soul" routine). Once established, Life meanders through minor obstacles that require each character to find the strength to confront the cause of their individual pain. For Einar and Jean, that means coming to terms with each other's presence. For Mitch, it means staring down a bear that attacked him in the middle of the night and left him for dead.
Hallström makes safe films (The Cider House Rules, for example) with predictable results, so we can guess where Life will lead before we embark on the journey. Mark and Virginia Spragg's script lingers in worn out and comfortable troubles that often plague those mourning loved ones. They work in cardboard cutouts to surround the leads, from an obvious love interest for Jean (Josh Lucas) to a sinister predator (Damian Lewis) that will give Einar opportunity to protect what's his.
The performances keep us interested, even if these actors have dabbled in their motivations before. Redford gently moseys on screen like he's a permanent fixture in these mountain ranges, surfacing only when he's needed to fill a role Clint Eastwood passed on. Lopez doesn't overplay the material. Young Gardner isn't an actress yet, though films like Life give her an invaluable chance to work with greats like Redford and Freeman while drinking in the breathtaking landscape.
Unfortunately, Life feels compelled to button up every issue, and Hallström's happy endings are contrived. Bonds are inevitably reestablished, apologies are begrudgingly accepted and grief fades away, absorbed by the vast frontier - just as we'd expect.
The bigger surprise lies in the film's release date. Life was targeted months ago as an Oscar hopeful, based largely on Hallström's reputation and the cast he recruited. But general uncertainty currently swirling around Miramax has led to the studio unceremoniously dumping titles with little build-up and almost no marketing push. If Miramax continues to bail on movies like Life and the upcoming John Madden drama Proof, the theatrical shelf life of these dramas will be far too short.
DVD features include a commentary with Hallström and company, plus a making of featurette and a vignette on training the bear.
The lariat ain't big enough for that thing.