One year ago, a wild bear stole a calf from Mitch (Morgan Freeman) and Einar’s (Robert Redford) ranch. The two friends attempted to save the calf, but the bear viciously attacked Mitch — and because Einar was drunk, he failed to save him from serious injury. The bear escaped into the mountains.
A year later, Mitch’s wounds still cause him constant pain. Einar cares for Mitch daily, giving him morphine injections, food and friendship. He leans his guilt on emotional crutches, while Mitch struggles to walk with a cane. The bear later returns to forage for food in town — and around the same time, Einar’s long-lost daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) shows up on his doorstep.
Sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas) captures the bear and displays him in the town zoo. Jean and her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) move in with Einar and Mitch. Einar’s son, Griffin, had moved away and married Jean years ago, causing a rift in the family that snapped when Griffin died in a car accident. Tension mounts between Einar and Jean because both are still grieving for Griffin.
Since Griffin died, Jean has fallen into a series of abusive relationships. She moved in with Einar to escape her latest abusive boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), but like the bear, her past will return to haunt her. Jean slowly falls in love with Sheriff Curtis, but little Griff can’t open up to him or trust him because of Jean’s bad experiences.
Jean starts working at a local coffee shop. There she befriends Nina, another waitress (Camryn Manheim), who helps her understand Einar’s gruff ways and dark past.
Tensions in the family continue to build. One night, Gary arrives to harass Jean and Griff. He and Einar have an explosive confrontation that pushes Einar to the brink.
Einar returns to the ranch and demands that Jean tells him how Griffin died. Jean says they flipped a coin to determine who would drive — she lost. At 3 a.m., the two tired souls set out for the last leg of their trip. Jean fell asleep at the wheel. The car flipped six times. Griffin died, but Jean survived and discovered she was pregnant with Griff. When he learns the truth about why his son was ripped from him too soon, Einar says they’ll have to talk about Jean moving out. Jean says she’s through talking. The next morning she takes Griff with her and leaves to stay with Nina. Griff, who loves her grandfather as the first strong male figure in her life, runs back to the ranch alone. Einar and Mitch teach her to be a real Wyoming cowgirl.
Einar meets Jean at the diner and invites her to come back and live with him and Griff after a camping trip. The camping trip is cover for carrying out a request from Mitch to set the bear who handicapped him free. The plan does not go off without a hitch as Griff accidentally knocks the gearshift lever into neutral while Einar is luring the bear into the cage, freeing the bear who attacks Einar. Griff drives Einar to the hospital, where he and Jean attempt to reconcile. Back at the ranch, Mitch survives a peaceful confrontation with the bear from his past. It flees to the mountains where it belongs.
Gary makes one last attempt to drag Jean and Griff back “home”; this ends with Einar beating him up and tossing him on a bus out of town. In the final scene, Einar affectionately talks with one of his cats, who throughout the whole story he coldly ignored. Griff then invites Sheriff Curtis for lunch. All is well as Mitch narrates the last seconds of the story, describing to Einar, his dreams of flying above the earth and coming to understand things about life.Robert Redford as Einar Gilkyson
Jennifer Lopez as Jean Gilkyson
Morgan Freeman as Mitch Bradley
Josh Lucas as Sheriff Crane Curtis
Lynda Boyd as Kitty
Damian Lewis as Gary Winston
Camryn Manheim as Nina
Becca Gardner as Griff Gilkyson
Trevor Moss as Griffin Gilkyson (in flashbacks)
Bart the Bear 2 as Bear
While set in Wyoming, the movie was actually filmed in the Canadian towns of Ashcroft, Savona, and Kamloops, British Columbia.
Reviews of the film were mixed. Movie review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes shows that 53% of critics gave the film a positive review, giving it a "rotten" score.
An Unfinished Life did not open well; it opened at number 16 in its limited release opening weekend with $1,008,308. In its second weekend, with a wider release, the film opened at number 11 with $2,052,066. Despite its $30 million budget, the film made only $18,618,284 worldwide by the time of its closing.
The film won the best makeup award from the Canadian Network of Makeup Artists (Jayne Dancose), and it won the Genesis Award as best feature for 2005.