Lasse Hallstrom directs slow and thoughtful dramas (like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat). His 2005 An Unfinished Life opens with a shot of a bear, and it is not a coincidence. The bear is a character in the story. Indeed, he is a metaphor for the premise of the movie.
Jennifer Lopez plays Jean Gilkyson, a single mom who is living with a violent boyfriend in Iowa. After one more incidence of domestic abuse, she takes her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) and runs. In an old car that breaks down she has nowhere to go . . . except to Wyoming, where her estranged father-in-law Einar lives. But she is the last person he wants to see. And each carries their own secrets, secrets that haunt them.
Einar lives on a ranch alone, except for his friend Mitch who lives in a log-cabin on his property. Oscar winners Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman play these two characters as grizzled, crabby old cowboys. But whereas Mitch bears the outward scars and the physical disability of a mauling by the bear, Einar is physically unwounded but bears the invisible scars of emotional wounds.
When Jean shows up on Einar's doorstep with her daughter, he learns that Griff is his granddaughter, the child of his late son, Griff. A shock indeed! His first interaction with the young Griff is less than polite, but he allows them both to stay, if just for a couple of weeks. But that is long enough for her to get a job at local diner, hook up with town sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas), and for her abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) to find her and show up in town.
As the movie unfolds, Einar visits the grave of his boy, which is on his ranch. The headstone atop the grave, says "an unfinished life," because he died young in a car accident with Jean at the wheel. But whose life is really unfinished? Jean has an unfinished life, since she blames herself for killing her husband. From that time she has withdrawn, taking only the comfort of losers, who abuse her, as a form of penance. Einar, in turn, has blamed Jean for killing Griff, and has retreated into his bitterness. He drove his wife away by his isolation, and now only has Mitch left as a friend. And Einar has blamed himself for his involvement in the bear mauling accident that left Mitch disfigured and disabled. How about us? Are we living unfinished lives, lives damaged by blame?
But An Unfinished Life is a movie of redemption and forgiveness. During the few weeks that Jean and Griff are living in town, Einar learns what it means to have a relative, a granddaughter, to love. And amidst such great actors, Becca Gardner, in her second movie role, steals the show. She wins Einar's heart and softens him until he is ready to confront Jean.
In a key scene, he wakes Jean from slumber and tells her he must talk to her. This verbal confrontation makes them face each other and put their baggage on the table. Although it forces her away, at least temporarily, the wounds are opened for all to see. No longer are the secrets hidden. And though they are not resolved, there is now opportunity for healing. Until they are verbalized they cannot be faced.
We all have experienced blame and the resulting bitterness. Perhaps we are the blamers (self-confession: I fall into this category), or maybe we have been on the receiving end. Either way, the issue is not pleasant and will not disappear. Either the parties separate or they deal with the issue. Many times the blame is inappropriate and uncalled for. But forgiveness drains the bitterness away. As we forgive the offender, we release the bitterness we have harbored and in turn we release ourselves from the prison it created.
Early on, learning that the bear is back in town, Einar takes his rifle to go kill it, only to be prevented by Sheriff Curtis. The fish and wildlife folks sedate and capture it instead. This is how Einar deals with his problems -- a quick kill to put it behind him, a permanent solution, out of his immediate attention. But the effects of the bear are apparent and face him every day in Mitch's scars. Mitch, on the other hand, wants Einar to visit the bear, now in the town zoo, and even to feed it. Mitch has faced his foe, placed no blame, and held no bitterness. He is willing to move on, despite the consequences, and live his life, difficult though it is, to the finish. Mitch sees beyond to a future that embraces all that life has thrown at him. Even when the bear escapes and somehow returns to Mitch, and runs at him, Mitch will not (cannot) run. Instead, he stands his ground. He will face life, the good and the bad, but refuses to play the blame game or wallow in pity parties.
Accidents happen in life. As Mitch says to Einar, "They call 'em accidents cause it's nobody's fault," though we want to make it someone's fault because it feels easier to accept. And later Mitch adds, in a comment about his dream of flying, "I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything." We may never know why something happened, but faith in God underlies an acceptance that he is sovereign and does have a reason for the things that happen. This side of glory we may never know that reason, but faith accepts, trusts and forgives.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs