Cinema Signal:

From Anger to Forgiveness

. "An Unfinished Life"

The theme of forgiveness and the difficulty of it, especially in an atmosphere of deep grief, is well woven with character and insight into a finely structured dramatic fabric. The richness of it is all the more so for the inclusion of two mature actors, a glamour actress who struggles against critical invective but here doing her best work, and a pure and natural teen in her 2nd picture -- all guided by a director of proven sensitivity.

After the death of her husband, Jean Gilkyson finds herself in an unenviable relationship with a batterer, with whom she and her teenage daughter Griff have been living. But one punch too many with the usual next morning apologies has her finally waking up to realities and taking off down the road.

With little money and shaky optimism, all options break down when their car throws a piston. Jean can think of only one option. When she tells Griff they're going to her grandfather in Wyoming, the youngster is incredulous. "I have a grandfather?" Pause. "When were you going to tell me?" But Jean has good reason for not having mentioned it all these years. Father-in-law Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) holds her responsible for his dear boy's death.

Sure enough, at the sight of them on his ranch, he orders them to make an about face. It's only because of the granddaughter he didn't know about until that instant that he allows them to remain until Jean can earn enough money to leave.

Living on the ranch with Einar and under his faithful care is invalid, ex-ranchhand Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Every day, since Mitch was mauled by a bear that lives in the surrounding hills, the routine has been for Einar to inject a dose of morphine into his tough old hide, feed him and sustain the salty humor that keeps things going. And, yes, to do just about everything Mitch might ask for, like not shooting the animal, like seeing to it that it is safely captured and put into the local animal zoo.

So, Einar is a man with a deep resentment toward the daughter-in-law who was at the wheel when the car accident killed his son, and a deep sense of guilt about being too drunk to ward off the bear when it assaulted his pard. He grieves regularly at his son's grave on a hill overlooking his spread and, without a ranchhand, sold off his cattle in order to remain on his land. Now, his unalterable habits are going to undergo a few changes.

They start with his acceptance of little Griff as an open, inquisitive helper who begins to fill in the gaping hole in his life.

Director Lasse Halstrom isn't afraid of the sentimental, or the pushing of a metaphor. With "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "the Cider House Rules," and "The Shipping News," he has certainly demonstrated his taste for superb writing and a level of creativity that takes sentiment to the plateau of thoughtful drama with actors who enrich every minute.

And, surprisingly, I don't exclude Ms. Lopez in this. After such fatuous fare as "Gigli," "Maid in Manhattan," "Shall We Dance," and "Monster-in-Law," I actually enjoyed her tough and sexy presence in this company. I'm not forgiving her the airheaded, commercial credits in her recent past, but truth be told, she's just fine here, stern, steady, striving and contending against difficult odds.

As for the two guys, Redford and Freeman are national treasures who need nothing more than credible dialogue and a tasty story to provide a movie an abundance of fascination. They're flinty and solid, the kind of people who make a $12-15 boxoffice tab actually seem appropriate.

Becca Gardner is the kind of naturally gifted child actor whose intuitive presence is serious and satisfying, and her performance here shouldn't be missed. The Fanning sisters aren't the only girl wonders of the acting community. Camryn Manheim as Nina, the local restaurateur and supportive lady, showed me that my distaste for her overbearing boorishness as Ellenor Frutt on "The Practice" TV series was just a matter of context. And, lastly, Josh Lucas is on point as attractive local Sheriff Crane Curtis who has the qualities to attract the widow's enforcement needs and attention.

The outcome is entirely predictable, but the experience of getting there -- while not gripping -- is calmly satisfying.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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