Mary Devine Award Winner 2009

"An Unfinished Life":

Compromise in the New West

By Carol Antill

In “Semester in the West” students at a small college in Walla Walla, WA are given a unique opportunity to experience the west in a cultural and geographically-based course [1]. During the summer semester, students travel and interview residents of western communities about environmental issues, gathering opposing perspectives relative to the ecology of an area. After observing the efforts of a rancher who committed thousands of dollars of personal income to restoring salmon habitat to a stream that was altered for conservation purposes by a federal agency decades earlier, students experienced what their professor called an epiphany. As the rancher explains, because we didn’t know then what we know now about the impact of conservation measures on fish habitat, nothing is to be gained by casting blame and much is to be gained by compromise. This is the new west, which like the old west draws entrepreneurs, outlaws, and those in between who seek the beauty of unspoiled nature, fewer people per square mile, and spatial and political freedoms associated with the frontier but where the threat to the ecological balance by our carbon footprint warrants a closer look at those leaving the footprints.

Like these students of the new west, the characters of An Unfinished Life are confronted with the issue of casting blame while the idea of compromise seems elusive, if not impossible. A 2005 film that captures contemporary characters in a western setting, An Unfinished Life is based on the novel of the same name by Mark Spragg and benefits from a screenplay penned by Spragg as well. His grasp of the west comes from a childhood of being raised on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming. His gift for drawing out the beauty of the landscape is not lost in a film where sweeping aerial images of snow-powdered mountains, winding dirt roads, rustic ranch interiors, and that icon of contemporary culture, the pickup truck, abound. In both the novel and the film, the characters are carefully revealed, complementing the grandeur of the setting without sacrifice to the plot.

An Unfinished Life is a tale of loss and forgiveness that revolves around five characters: Einar, an aging rancher, Mitch, his hired hand/best friend, Jean, his estranged daughter-in-law, her 10-year old daughter, Griff, and a displaced grizzly bear. Einar loses his only son Griffin in a car accident that occurred when the driver (Jean) fell asleep at the wheel. His bitterness drives away his guilt-ridden daughter-in-law and later his wife, who is never seen onscreen and only mentioned once. He turns to alcohol for solace and manages his grief by saddling his horse and riding to his son’s hilltop grave overlooking the ranch, where he talks to a headstone etched with An Unfinished Life beneath Griffin’s name. When Mitch is attacked by a grizzly that has strayed onto the ranch, Einar finds his days dramatically altered. Because his reflexes were liquor-impaired, Einar responded too late to prevent Mitch from being mauled and becomes Mitch’s caretaker. Mitch carves deer antlers on good days and remains bedridden on bad days, depending on Einar to bring his meals and administer daily morphine injections. The sudden reappearance of Jean, with a daughter who resulted from her short-lived marriage to Einar’s son, is the beginning of redemption in all of their lives. In a setting that alternates between the ranch and the fictional town of Ishawooa, the story unfolds in real time, through conversation and confessions of the main characters, avoiding the use of flashback. What raises the story to a level above the familiar, clichéd family drama is the symbolic and physical presence of the bear.

In the west that existed prior to paved roads and power lines, the grizzly’s range met little resistance. Native American tribes viewed the grizzly’s presence with fear and respect. Human interaction with bears usually resulted in death for either the human or the bear. In the new west of An Unfinished Life, the grizzly still commands fear and respect but interactions between the bear and humans take unpredictable turns after the grizzly’s encounter with Mitch. No less than three facets of civilization become involved in the rural community where the attack takes place: the family unit (Einar and Mitch), the forest service, and a private zoo. Immediate action taken towards the bear comes from the forest service, an agency that strives to keep the species intact by protecting it from slaughter and relocating it. Relocation being complex and expensive in the modern patchwork of human habitat, the grizzly ultimately becomes the star attraction of a local rundown zoo. The grizzly’s symbolic role in the film emerges in scenes depicting his altered fate; one of the last spirits of the untamed west visibly fades before the public in a 20-foot circular prison. Close-ups of the grizzly after his capture are spare yet effective; the twist of his massive head when he growls and his unblinking stare back at the tourists and townspeople who gawk at him underscore a growing disconnect between humans and nature. As a rancher struggling to hold on to a lifestyle that is partly to blame for the bear’s fate, Einar is equally symbolic of the contemporary west, a place where the interaction between these two icons culminates in compromise.

Portrayed by Robert Redford in his first role to acknowledge him as a senior citizen, Einar is a believable curmudgeon, reduced to a spare, duty-driven existence through his inability to accept the loss of his son. A stubble-faced silhouette in dust-speckled twilight, his first appearance on screen resembles a Rockwell portrait, surrounded by barn creatures that include a raccoon as well as several cats as he crouches to milk a cow. The arrival of Jean and Griff quickly dispels this brief image of tranquility. Initially, their presence stirs only deeper anguish over what is missing in his life. Yet when Jean is harassed by two drunken cowboys half his age, he easily puts them in their place with quick but effective strong-arm moves. In the solemn shadows of Mitch’s cabin, a close-up of his hands while he rubs liniment over the criss-cross of scar tissue that covers Mitch’s back exudes grace and humility. Beneath the endless Wyoming sky, solemnity gives way to spontaneity as Einar takes Griff for her first horseback ride. This curious mix of machismo and vulnerability in Einar dictates much of the rhythm of the film.

As the stoic hired hand who has become physically dependent on Einar, Morgan Freeman infuses his character with world-weary wisdom and easy banter that makes a lifetime friendship between the two aging cowboys reminiscent of mountain men of the old west. While the novel traces their friendship to their younger days as soldiers, the film doesn’t share this insight to their history. Yet the film’s treatment of their characters in the present, with little or no reference to their backgrounds, works because Morgan Freeman IS Mitch. Every dialogue between Mitch and Einar conveys the right amount of deep trust and respect between the men. Even as Einar injects him with morphine, Mitch quips about the pain one minute and in the next criticizes Einar for rejecting Jean and his granddaughter. He is the most complex character in the film, whose reclusive existence doesn’t diminish his vitality or his role as confidant for Jean and Griff, who seek his guidance in dealing with Einar. Mitch’s degree of loyalty to Einar is unquestionable; it is his courage to confront Einar about issues Einar has not been able to face that is the heart of the story, risking alienation of his caregiver and ultimately his life. Though many seek forgiveness in this tale of tragic accidents, the ultimate forgiveness centers on the character of Mitch, who not only forgives the bear who robbed him of the life he loved above all else, that of a working ranch hand, but takes it one step further with a request that Einar cannot refuse: release the bear from the unnatural life he’s been forced to live. Ultimately, Einar’s mission to carry out Mitch’s instructions brings about the compromise that defines the film.

Perhaps the most questionable casting of this film is Jennifer Lopez in the role of Jean. However, audiences who may be biased by her glamorous music videos and appearances at awards shows will find her surprisingly believable as the struggling single mother. Emotionally crippled by the guilt she bears from her young husband’s death, Jean is a blend of sexual tension and a need to please, which draws men of all types to her. Like a smoldering coal after the campfire has burned through the night, she settles into relationships with men who keep her from going under financially but who eventually resist the family structure that includes a daughter; the coal flares back to life when stirred by her daughter’s fear of rejection each time a new man comes into her life. Between Griff’s scathing indictment of Gary, the latest boyfriend, and abuse that escalates from verbal to physical, Jean moves with speed if little planning, seeking refuge with the only family she has a claim to, Einar and Mitch. After she’s hired as a waitress at the local diner in Ishawooa, Jean finds acceptance from another waitress, Nina. As a woman who struggles with her own grief and guilt after the loss of a child, Nina ultimately helps Jean view Einar as a grieving parent. Finally, Jean gains some measure of self-respect in a confrontation with Einar about the events that led to Griff’s death, leading to a move for physical and emotional independence. Though Jean’s transformation falls far short of an epiphany, the credible range of emotion from Jennifer Lopez earns her a well-deserved niche in the company of Redford and Freeman.

For all their insecurities and predictable missteps, Spragg’s characters are a likeable bunch but none as engaging as the irrepressible 11-year old Griff. As portrayed by Becca Gardner, Griff is multi-layered, shifting emotional gears with subtle changes in body language and pauses between her lines instead of the usual rise and fall in decibels that is accepted too often as good acting. Self-sufficiency being the unavoidable side effect of her mother’s on/off relationships with men, her return to the innocence of childhood in various scenes with Einar and Mitch endows her with an impish charm. Eventually, Einar is drawn to her for these qualities that remind him of his son. Griff follows him around the ranch asking questions, steeling herself for the usual stinging reply or set down. While Einar grudgingly prepares a raw meat mixture for the caged bear and mutters something about how should anyone know what a bear likes, Griff quietly offers, “Winnie the Pooh likes honey.” Surprised by the simple truth of what she says, Einar is also reminded that Griff is still very much the child, despite her ability to adapt in a very adult world. Griff exhibits an open-mindededness toward people who are physically different, as in her quick acceptance of Mitch’s deformity. In Spragg’s novel, Griff’s voice included insight about her through her journal entries, whereas insight to her character in the film depends totally on her dialogue and interaction with others. She speaks her mind before thinking, summing up her worldly-wise brand of innocence. During a lunch break on the porch with Einar and Mitch, she has been sizing up the two men quietly and takes them by surprise with her assessment.

"You guys are gay, right?" Both of the men eye each other and choking back laughter, Einar says, “I think one of us would’ve noticed by now.”
Griff quickly adds, “It’s okay. I had a teacher who was a lesbian.”
Mitch jokingly follows up with “I do think Einar’s got beautiful hands. I just wish he’d take better care of them.” For that brief moment we see Griff being accepted into their world as one of the guys, with no apologies or further explanations needed. The scene foreshadows a triumvirate that will steer the outcome of the story.

Undeniable chemistry between Redford and Freeman rescues the film from sentimentality to make a powerful statement of loss and forgiveness. Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mitch is of the caliber for which he earned an Oscar in Million Dollar Baby, a film released the same year as “An Unfinished Life. Another element that lifts this film above average is the location shooting in western landscapes such as New Mexico and British Columbia; such open vistas offer filmmakers unparalleled opportunities for capturing sunsets of pastel glory and tranquility of space. A subtle score enhances the unhurried pacing, allowing drama to unfold in dialogue rather than straight action scenes. While the plot holds no surprises, the unraveling areas of compromise between Jean and Einar, Einar and the grizzly, and Griff and the local sheriff (Jean’s new boyfriend) present some unexpected twists. This traditional tale could have been set in any rural American community from Tupelo, Mississippi to Chardon, Ohio but without the landscape and mindset of the west and its residents, past and present, its essential core would have lacked the spirit of An Unfinished Life. Like the students of Semester in the West who are charged with a “resolve to lead more deliberate lives,” each of the film’s principals realizes a capacity within themselves to change their unfinished lives for the better.

1. Epiphanies on the Range. By Phil Brick, High Country News, May 28, 2007.

Recommended contemporary western films:
Around the Bend (2004)
Off the Map (2003)

Suggested Reading: An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg, Random House, 2004.
Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg, University of Utah Press, 1999.