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An Unfinished Life (2005)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

An Unfinished Life is rich with diversity of relational contexts and emotional perspectives. In its exploration of forgiveness and responsibility, one central conflict is echoed and reflected in multiple

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

After watching An Unfinished life, and seeing played out before me its multi-faceted exploration of blaming and forgiveness, I hope I am more senstive to my own hidden issues of blaming. Blaming so insidiously takes root in my heart that I can easily see it as merely calling out the truth. But I should define my terms. There is a simple sense of “assigning blame” where, based on the known facts of a matter, someone is clearly the responsible party: Jean was driving the car, so the Griffin’s death was her fault. In the more insidious sense I call “blaming,” I release myself from any responsibility I might bear — as in: it’s okay for me to treat someone poorly or talk about them poorly (or do worse to them) because I blame them for what they did. Blaming is a step to dehumanizing another, and it contains a hidden pride quite dangerous to the one doing the blaming. From what I experienced in An Unfinished life, it is “blaming” to which I feel greater sensitivity and which I hope to be better able to catch and prevent in myself.

But there’s more: An Unfinished Life is a two-sided film. While the reconciliation between Einar and Jean is the most prominent plot point, the film wonderfully explores the significant role that Mitch plays in Einar’s transformation. I want to be able to run the line between the close-friend gentleness and the tough-love challenges that Mitch so deftly does with Einar. With Mitch, this combination of gentleness and challenge is not a strategy coolly played to move Einar toward God, it is simply his learned manner of love and of calling a lost one to life. That’s the kind of life I want to grow into: Maybe I can be a Mitch when my friends play the part of Einar.

As the film’s central metaphor, Mitch’s bear is a primary target of blame, as are Jean, Gary, and Einar. The four together, along with multiple minor conflicts, provide a strong base for us to experience different aspects of and perspectives on blame, forgiveness, taking responsibility, and reconciliation.

Understandably, Einar is deeply distraught at Griffin’s death. In his blaming, he latches onto Jean’s responsibility behind the wheel and, with Jean to blame, he releases himself from responsibility for the effect that his grief has on the rest of his life and those around him. By the end, Einar is a very different person, but there is no big moment of full reconciliation; he is transformed across the arc of the film. What changes him? Mitch’s prompting — preaching — is the biggest external force, but the most important factors are Einar’s deep friendship with Mitch, his respect for this friendship, and his own choices to change. The choices are difficult enough that Einar’s change comes in bits and stages, not all at once.

A path of forgiveness

Mitch’s path in relation to the bear embodies a progression toward forgiveness:

  • Step away from revenge. Einar tells Mitch that the bear is back as he takes out his rifle and says he’s off to do what he “should have done a year ago.” Einar’s approach is judgment and condemnation. Mitch has no verbal response to this, but he looks down and then off to the side, seemingly not sure that he likes Einar’s actions.
  • An intervention. Einar is just about to shoot the bear, but there is an intervention: Crane steps (drives) directly in the line of fire between Einar’s rifle and the bear (actually, Crane is not that foolish: he drives under the line of fire). Crane pursues a path to contain the bear while staying short of revenge and death.
  • Step into the pain. When Mitch learns that the bear is still alive, he asks Einar to check on the bear. Einar has no clue why anyone would give a single moment’s thought to the bear — much less visit the bear. For Mitch’s part, he seems to be exploring, taking a tentative step forward in his mixed feelings about the bear.
  • Compassion for the offender. In asking Einar to feed the bear, Mitch takes another step forward. In seeking the bear’s welfare, Mitch accepts the fact that his offender is a being and not an object. As a being, the bear deserves consideration and care.
  • Taking responsibility. Mitch grows to see the bear’s attack from the bear’s point of view. In attacking the calf, the bear was just doing what bears naturally do. When Mitch intervened and the bear turned on him, the bear was still just doing what bears do. Mitch is then able to take responsibility for his part in the bear’s attack. Deciding to intervene, Mitch had taken his chances knowing what the bear might do.
  • Forgiving. Realizing this, Mitch is finally able to forgive the bear. Mitch’s forgiveness did not require a change in the bear. Forgiveness here is rooted in Mitch’s recognition of the reality of what bears do.
  • Freedom and release. Having forgiven the bear, Mitch is ready to set the bear free — and to free the bear from the blame that Mitch had unfairly laid on the bear. More importantly, it frees Mitch from bitterness and resentment.
  • Waiting for reconciliation. The final Mitch-bear confrontation shows something of the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation. The bear being an animal, there is no chance of true reconciliation between Mitch and the bear; the bear will never apologize. If he were to withhold forgiveness until there was an apology, Mitch would be waiting forever. Instead, forgiveness came first and freed Mitch, even without reconciliation. While "waiting" for reconciliation, Mitch is right to maintain relational distance, as it were, by standing firmly against the bear. Reconciliation is good, but the freedom of forgiveness is not dependent on it.
  • Strength in forgiveness. When he comes face-to-face with the bear, we see that Mitch's forgiveness-before-reconciliation is not a weak act of submission. Mitch stands strongly against the bear; he won't "lie down" — in a manner of speaking, he maintains strong relational boundaries and distance. Yet in his weakened state, Mitch can do very little in response to the bear's threat. As the bear charges, he hasn't time to make it back into the house. Standing firmly, he closes his eyes (which reduces the chance of provoking the bear), doing all he is able to prevent further attack. If Mitch had tried to run, it may have encouraged the bear to attack; his facing down the bear may have helped ensure that the bear's charge was a bluff, as bears sometimes do. Appropriate relational boundaries play a strong part in forgiveness and the hope for reconciliation.

Of course, forgiving a bear for attacking is a simpler thing than forgiving a human for a wrong done. A bear acts on natural impulse alone, but humans have a will and a character, by which we properly expect them to control natural impulses. Nevertheless, Mitch's forgiveness of the bear offers insight for the other major conflicts in the film.

Einar is hardened enough at Griffin's death that it would be no surprise for him to remain that way. The beauty of An Unfinished Life is that we experience Einar's gradual transformation as Mitch's prodding and challenging, along with Griff's childlike simplicity and honesty, edge him out of his self-centeredness and into the life around him.

Einar at the start

Einar at first will have nothing to do with Jean. In his blaming and condemnation of her, he sees no reason for any communication or contact with her, same as he felt about visiting the bear. He has dehumanized her. He had so quickly estranged Jean that she was never comfortable telling him that she was pregnant at Griffin's funeral. Einar remains in a hardened state a decade later, when Jean and Griff show up at his place.

Einar's bitterness and blaming has poisoned him so deeply that he is hard even against Griff's presence. Mitch starts his prodding by saying that "a granddaughter is a nice thing to have," but Einar ignores him. He also ignores Mitch's question about whether he would take the girl into town with him for breakfast. At best, he tolerates Griff's presence, making her behave straight so that her presence won't cause him any inconvenience.

No wonder Nellie left him. Jean asks Mitch if he thinks that Einar blames her for Nellie leaving. Mitch says, "I imagine that he does." Einar is the one responsible for Nellie leaving, yet in his blaming, he frees himself by transferring responsibility to Jean. His grief at Griffin's death is certainly understandable but it is no excuse for his treatment of others.

Mitch's instigation of Einar's transformation

From nearly as soon as Jean and Griff arrive, the film gives us periodic glimpses of Mitch simply observing Einar's interactions with them. Starting with his granddaughter remarks that Einar ignores, Mitch prods, then pushes, then confronts Einar, gradually turning up the heat, trying to get Einar to wake up to the lives he is hurting, including his own.

The first major confrontation comes as they are playing cards. Talking about the car crash that killed Griffin, Mitch pushes Einar just enough for Einar to exclaim that, whatever one calls it, his son is dead. Mitch could easily have followed his first response, "Your granddaughter's not [dead]," with a bit of moral imperative spoken from on high, such as "You are wrong in how you are treating her." But he doesn't claim the moral high ground. Instead, when he adds, "And neither are you," Mitch is calling Einar back to life. Then he adds, "Have you thought about how she's going to remember you?" to prompt Einar toward a bit of self examination to get him to think about life and relationships.

There's a saying that goes, "Failing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." In his angry response to Mitch, it is clear that Einar is drinking the poison. But, much to Einar's chagrin, the challenge, having come from a close friend, sinks in; he can't shake it. We see him pause while milking the cow. We see him sit quietly at Griffin's grave, which is Einar's place of reflection. We see him watching Griff from a distance. We see Einar's agitation as the pressure builds inside him. Finally, he bursts out of the house and, as Mitch watches on, invites Griff into his world saying, "You know anything about trucks?" Seeing Einar struggle — and again when he catches himself after barking at Griff about the honey — I feel how hard it is to turn loose the poison.

Einar does lose the poison toward Griff, but not toward Jean. Mitch sees his continued rudeness toward Jean, and prods him by saying he dreamed about Einar "not being such a miserable person" — again choosing a call to life over a moral critique. Later, he warns Einar about "hold[ing] on to the family [he's] got." In his last and strongest challenge, Mitch says to Einar, "What I can't do is continue to lie here every day and watch you mourn for a life you think you should have had. There are people everywhere that think they got dealt a bad hand, Einar."

Mitch, the preacher

Before An Unfinished Life shows Mitch's prodding and challenging Einar, the film does something critical: It shows us the close relationship that Einar and Mitch have. We see it in Einar's personal care for Mitch, their "argument" about the weather, and in their sparring about fixing the truck. It establishes the relational context for Mitch's pushing and challenging. Mitch cares deeply about Einar, and Einar knows it. In a beautiful pair of one-liners by Einar, the film shows us the difference it makes. After Griff is rude to Crane, Einar scolds her, in effect saying the only one she can be rude to is "some guy looking to sell his angle on God." Later, after some of Mitch's prodding, Einar sits next to Griffin's grave and, in a bit of a chagrined soliloquy says, "Mitch. What the hell does he know? What's he think he is, a preacher or something?" Although it's not easy for Einar to take even from Mitch, Mitch's closeness gives him standing in the relationship to, in fact, sell his angle on God, embodied in his attitude toward forgiveness.

It's an important perspective. While it is certainly true that, sometimes, a word of challenge placed from outside a close relational context may hit home, it is more likely to be an unwanted intrusion into another's life that highly risks alienation. Sure, the other would bear fault in their prideful rejection of our good intentions, but it would also be our fault for not loving them well. From outside the relationship, we'd be wiser to go much more slowly, perhaps with comments like Mitch's initial remarks about Einar's granddaughter.

Griff's part in Einar's transformation

Griff's presence, initiative, and directness work on Einar, too. Her presence is like a thorn in Einar's side: a constant reminder to Einar that something's missing — and a thorn that Mitch presses on to get Einar's attention. At first, Einar suppresses this influence, sometimes by sharply rebuking her. Feeling the sting of his sharp words, she could choose to go far away from him, but she remains somewhat close, trying to be nice. She asks him about the cats' names. To Einar, the cats are just things. He doesn't "tell them apart" — like he doesn't tell Griff and Jean apart in how he treats them. As the film goes on, her playing with the cats provides a recurring contrast with Einar's treating people like things.

It's not as though Griff likes Einar, but where Jean is ready to write Einar off, Griff at least stays cautiously open to and respectful of him. Were she an unlikable kid, it would be easier for Einar to ignore Mitch's challenge. As it is, her sitting peacefully petting the cats seems to be the final straw that breaks Einar, after which he bursts out to invite her into his world. She is ready to receive him and she warms to him quickly. In the brief moment of tension after her initiative with honey for the bear meat, we see Einar begin to fully accept Griff.

Their relationship builds to where Einar's next sharp words to her — about her rudeness to Crane — have a completely different context. Now they are words of respectful training. Later, she has her own pointed words for Einar, in her direct, childlike honesty, when she tells him that Jean's old boyfriend was only "mean with his words, like you." She joins Mitch in pressing the truth on Einar.

Griff's biggest impact on Einar comes after the big Einar-Jean blowup. Driven by Jean's insensitivity toward her, Griff goes back to Einar — perhaps something no one had done in a long time, if ever. Einar's tentative re-entry into life came back around to him. Griff's goodness helps Einar realize that there may be some goodness in Jean after all. In the end, Einar even catches a bit of Griff's affection for the cats.

Einar comes around

The depth of Einar's relationships with Mitch and Griff, together with their goodness of character, gives weight to their proddings and challenges in relation to Jean. Both accept and love Einar, and neither of them accepts his treatment of Jean. From Mitch, Einar learns his stubborn refusal to accept the raw edges of life. From Griff, he learns that beauty and love and joy are still available, even amidst the raw edges of life. The pressure they place on Einar is not that of guilt voiced from a moral high ground, it is, by words and by example, a call to the beauty of life founded in truth and goodness. Einar humbles himself, and the film wonderfully plays Einar's tentative reaching out to Jean for reconciliation at the counter in Nina's cafe. Jean responds, staying the night at the hospital with Einar and Griff. As Griff announces to Mitch, they had "set the bear free."

Why not Gary?

We have no love lost for Gary, and one of An Unfinished Life's strengths is that, in its juxtapositions and intertwined stories, it explores and clarifies why there is no reconciliation for him. Jean was clearly responsible for Griffin's death, just as Einar is responsible for his treatment of Jean and Gary is responsible for his abuse. They are all perpetrators in their own ways, as is the bear. Yet in each case, the genesis of the offense and the perpetrator's attitude toward the offense are different.

The bear's actions are purely from his animal nature; there is no moral imperative on the bear. Jean's offense arose from poor human judgment. Though Griffin didn't stop them driving, neither did she. Jean mourns every day at her offense. Einar's offense arises from different human frailties than Jean's: The failure to accept life in all its fragile beauty, followed by a self-centered pity and pride that leads to self-justification and relational blindedness. He violates his own admonition to Griff — he is not pleasant to whoever comes to his door — yet he is, at least, restrained in his lashing out. He is mean, but as Nina says, we can understand what he is going through. His offense is understandable, though not excusable. He growls but doesn't bite, and it's appropriate for those that love and understand him to respond by inviting him back to life.

Gary's offense is born purely of selfishly using other humans, and his offense is another order of magnitude. Though it is no small thing when we hurt another with words, a line is crossed when we physically harm another. Like Einar, Gary makes unwarranted excuses for his behavior, but unlike Einar, there is no reason for us to tolerate his behavior as we call him to life. The magnitude of his offense is great enough to warrant immediate severance of the relationship. Gary can't even tolerate a bit of silence from Jean, it is doubtful he would stand for much of a call back to life. If we knew Gary's background — he may well have been abused as a child — we may understand his behavior. Though the film doesn't depict forgiveness for Gary, we do see in Mitch's path with the bear that forgiveness doesn't depend on reconciliation. Reconciliation might at some time be a possibility, but it must begin with Gary's clear admission of guilt and remorse. Until then, Einar's force — up to a limit, as Jean yells out, "It's enough!" — is a good and proper response to Gary's forceful attempt to restart the relationship. Relational boundaries are an integral part of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Silencing blaming; inviting to life

An Unfinished Life gives me a solid experience of the power — and responsibility — of relationship in calling people to life. Where there's trust and love and understanding in a relationship, proddings and challenges come with the credibility of true concern. More to the point, the one doing the challenging has a good chance of knowing how their challenge may affect the offender and of crafting a challenge that truly and lovingly cuts to the heart. While a challenge from outside of relationship is not necessarily inappropriate, it has a high risk of being merely an edict from the moral high ground and a selling of one's angle on God. I hope I can carry away something of Mitch's wisdom and grace.

In Griff's role in the film, I'm encouraged to be open to an offender's turn. Perhaps I can live the simple beauty that draws offenders toward life and then be there to receive them. Maybe I can then gain the relational standing — and the depth of love for and understanding of them — to more actively prod and challenge.

But even more, I want to keep fresh in my feelings the turn away from blaming that Einar accomplished. As much as I want to be like Mitch, in that he never mentioned how Einar's drunkenness contributed to his injuries, there's probably more chance I'll be like Einar. If I can remember his moment of turning, agitated as he knocked the milk glass on the table and burst out the door, maybe I can catch myself sooner, get out of my prideful, self-pitying ways, re-enter life, and forgive. Maybe then I'll live to see another's remorse and be ready and able to reconcile as well.

  • In the opening sequence, Einar drinking his milk from a tin as he heaves a rough sigh and looks out over the land, speaking of a hard life and embodying a rough but beautiful relationship with the land and Wyoming ranch life.
  • When Griff looks at the pictures of her father, the camera does a brief refocusing so that we see her reflection in her father's picture, and she smiles — it's a beautiful little connection between daughter and the father she never knew.
  • The cut to Einar on the bicycle that starts only with only the orange flag framed against the mountain — the contrast catches our interest and makes Einar-on-the-bicycle that much lighter of a moment.
  • The banter back and forth between Einar and his friend when he's on the bicycle — just fun friendship and care for one another.
  • When Jean and Crane visit her old family home, they've just referred to the "quiet place" her parents bought and then a roaring truck goes by — the surprise of it jolts us into a realization of how life can suddenly change and can seem quite unfair.
  • Griff looking in on Einar while he milks the cow, with barely her eyes above the wooden wall — there's a relational barrier between them, but she stretches to try to see over it.
  • Mitch's question to Einar, "Have you thought about how she's gonna remember you?" — by centering on Einar, it gets inside his self-centeredness to perhaps begin to loosen him from it.
  • After the first confrontation with Mitch, there are scenes of Einar slowing down and contemplating (milking, sitting at Griff's grave), then cut to him looking at young Griff sitting by the tree — I could feel Mitch's words, together with Griff's presence, working on Einar.
  • Framing of Einar drinking milk with Griff reflected in the window — beautiful juxtaposition, with a thoughtful pause from Einar as he holds the glass close to his mouth — it did very well at speaking Einar's feelings without dialog.
  • The bit when Einar is fixing the meat for the bear and Griff gives him honey to mix with it — when Einar barks back at her, but then pauses and turns back to try the honey, it shows a kind of turn we can make in reaching out and giving another person significance. Even if the bear didn't like it, it was a significant and loving turn for Einar.
  • The interaction between Einar, Griff, and Mitch about whether it's a flower or a weed — it shows perspectives on beauty.
  • Mitch's little chuckle after Einar says to be pleasant "unless it's some guy looking to sell his angle on God. There's no excuse for that bullshit" — Mitch's eyes carry a certain compassionate yet insightful wisdom that resonates all the more after we watch Mitch sell his angle on God as a "preacher" to Einar.
  • Griff listening in while Jean explains Griffin's death and her continuing guilt — Griff's quivering hand to her mouth excellently captures her processing of it all and trying to take it in.
  • Griff's little smile as she steers Einar's truck across the field and her smile as she milks the cow toward the end of the film — something in the warming of a child's heart rings deeply true and good.
  • As Mitch stares at the bear in the cage, he ignores Griff's banter beside him (which he would normally have enjoyed) — it shows the hard struggle and concentration it takes him to actually forgive the bear and get past the past. And, it shows Griff's sensitivity as she realizes that there's a reason he's not listening.
  • The fly off ending, with the panoramic shots of the ranch and the slow rotation around to reveal Griffin's grave at just the right moment — it gets us to step back to gain perspective on all that happened.
  • At the very end, as Mitch describes his dream, he says, "I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns to black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything." — blue turning to black is an apt image of life going wrong; passing by Griffin's grave just as he says "there was a reason for everything" makes a beautiful connection. (I must add, however, that though I find this connection to be beautiful, I also find it to be problematic. God certainly has bigger aims than we can fully grasp yet, in my pursuit of Biblical and Christian understanding, it rings truer to God's character that in general He, with good reason, would use the dreadfulness of Griffin's death, not that He, for good reason, would cause it.)

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2005 by the filmmakers.


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