America is a diverse country with a diverse past, and therefore it myths are as diverse as the nation. One of the most prevalent types of myths in American history has been the western, and in a western setting, the most complicated personal, emotional, and social issues can be explored. One example of such a case is Lasse Hallstrom's An Unfinished Life, which looks at a number of different issues involved in a number of different types of characters lives all while taking place in a western location. Set on a ranch just outside a small western town, this western has a twist: the story takes place in the present. It is not the typical "old west" style of western, but still retains much of the western's character and themes while also incorporating modern issues and problems. This film tackles age old issues such as the loss of loved ones and forgiveness, but also is not afraid to discuss issues problematic to the modern world such as abusive relationships and alcoholism. As the film is set in a small town in the west, surrounded by nature, the interaction between man and nature is an integral part of the story, especially the consequences of disrupting its delicate balance. But most of all the importance of family and friends, and their love for each other is expressed, and like the westerns of old this film does have a happy ending.
It is suffice to say that An Unfinished Life is about an woman and her daughter who seek refuge with the father of her dead husband. Jean (played by Jennifer Lopez) is a widow who takes her daughter Griff, leaves her abusive boyfriend and flees to the ranch of her former father-in-law, Einer (Robert Redford). There she plans to hide until she can make enough money to move somewhere else, but first she must come to terms with her late husband's father and his anger over the death of his son. When Jean fell asleep while driving and flipped the car, killing her husband, Einer blamed her and the two haven't spoken for several years. Because of the separation, Einer is unaware that he has a granddaughter and learns of her existence when Jean shows up at his ranch.
Besides having to deal with this new situation, has been taking care of his friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman) who is recovering from a bear attack. The bear has been captured and is currently being held in a small zoo in town, but Mitch prods Einer into discovering how the bear is doing in its new environment. Unfortunately, capturing the bear and putting it in a cage was slowly killing the animal, and Mitch later makes Einer set the bear free. The relationship between Einer and Jean is rocky at first, but with the help of Griff, the two eventually reconcile. Einer forgives Jean for the accident and his anger over the death of his son subsides. The new relationship is firmly cemented when Jean's ex-boyfriend Gary shows up and attempts to force Jean and Griff to come back with him. But Einer intercedes with his trusty Winchester sending Gary on his way with a couple of black eyes for his trouble. With the villain gone, Jean and Einer reconciled, and the family all living happily together, the film ends in a positive way indicating to the audience that the future will be bright.
This film contains the archetypal American western characters: a damsel in distress, an evil villain, the hero who comes to the rescue, and the hero's sidekick. It also contains typical American issues such as the anger and forgiveness, protecting family, the difference between law and justice, helping friends in need, as well as modern American issues like abusive relationships and upsetting the balance of nature. All of the problems faced by the characters in this story can be taken as typical elements endemic of American culture. As a culture, America contains as many problems as great ideas and inventions, and these problems seem to be part of the "American experience." First of all is the problem with Jean and her boyfriend Gary; he is abusive. This is a problem that a great many American women face and in the past there has not been much done to aid these poor women. This is symbolized by Jean's leaving Gary, but having no place to go as the women's shelter is a well-known place and, in reality, offers Jean and her daughter Griff no safety. Too many American women have been forced to suffer at the hands of abusive men because they had no one to turn to and place to go. Jean is also the typical abused woman, emotionally scarred and possessing too little self-esteem to seek out a better situation. Because of the mistakes she has made in the past, she feels she just doesn't deserve any better.
It is her daughter Griff who urges Jean to finally leave Gary, a journey that ultimately takes her to the ranch of Einer, her deceased husband's father. Because Jean's past mistake while driving resulted in Einer's son Griffin being killed, he blames her for his death. There is a rift in the family caused by the death of someone they both loved which leads to resentfulness, anger, and division. Einer makes it perfectly clear that he is still angry when Jean suddenly arrives on his ranch and he tells her he does not want her there. He even goes so far as to tell his friend Mitch that she killed his son. It is Mitch that sends Einer on an emotional journey that will eventually lead to forgiveness and redemption.
Mitch represents the sidekick who helps the hero in a clever and indirect way. Mitch uses the bear that attacked him to get Einer to soften up his hard emotional shell. Einer is also resentful of the bear for almost killing his friend Mitch, but over the course of time, comes to forgive the bear and even helps the bear escape. The bear symbolizes Einer's anger and resentment, and when he helps it escape, he symbolically releases his anger over his son's death. The bear also symbolizes man's ability to cause in-balance in nature, and the devastating results. As Mitch explained to Einer, the bear was only doing what bears do, and it was they who had upset the delicate balance of nature with the result being a severe mauling. The issue of man vs. nature, especially the harm to the environment caused by man's actions are currently an important American issue that has yet to be fully resolved.
What would a good western story be without a tremendously evil villain, which come in the form of Jean's boyfriend Gary. He is the archetypal villain who is violent, selfish, stalks and ultimately attempts to abduct Jean and her daughter. He is the obsessed boyfriend who cannot take no for an answer, even when Einer and the sheriff threaten him and chase him out of town. Gary is the type of villain that requires extra-legal tactics in order to be defeated. At first Einer tries to deal with Gary in a legal way, consulting the sheriff and even working with the sheriff, but as Gary returns to abduct Jean, it is up to Einer to deal with Gary using frontier justice. This is a traditional American cultural archetype, the reluctant hero who, when the law fails to protect the people, must take the law into his own hands and defeat the villain. Like the cavalry in an old western film, Einer arrives just in the nick of time, and armed with his trusty Winchester rifle, saves Jean and Griff and beats Gary senseless.
An Unfinished Life is a film about a desperate woman seeking refuge in an unlikely place, a former father-in-law who harbors a deep seeded anger and resentment toward her. But during the story, Einer comes to release his anger, accepts the death of his son as an accident, and forgives Jean. If there is one major theme running through the film it is forgiveness, and this is something that is an integral part of American culture. Americans generally forgive those who have done harm to them, it is part of American culture to try to understand the point-of-view of other people, to see things from a different point-of-view. An Unfinished Life is a story about forgiveness and understanding, particularly Einer's leaning to forgive. Einer begins the movie wanting to kill the bear who mauled his friend and even tells Mitch that he should have done it a year ago. But over time he learns that the bear was not at fault for the mauling, and was doing only what came natural. Likewise, he also comes to accept that Jean was not at fault for the accident, and that why it is called an accident, because no one is at fault.