Early in An Unfinished Life, 11-year-old Griff Gilkyson pores over a map of America and suggests places she and her mother, Jean, can go to escape an abusive boyfriend. Loving, New Mexico, sounds good. Butte, Montana, sounds funny. And Aloha, Oregon, is only 10 inches away. Of course, at a map scale of 1 inch to 80 miles, Aloha is about 770 miles further than their broken-down car can travel. But young Griff's geographic math is an excellent introduction to a film that covers some sweeping emotional terrain one inch at a time. With a few notable exceptions, An Unfinished Life explores the power of forgiveness (and the lack thereof) through a series of small and nuanced moments exchanged between the wounded members of a fractured family.
Mother and daughter end up not in Loving, Butte, or Aloha, but in Ishawooda, Wyoming, where Jean arrives unannounced at her father-in-law Einar's ranch and asks for some temporary shelter. Jean and Einar have been estranged for 12 years—ever since Jean lost her husband (and Einar lost his son) in a tragic car accident. Their reunion is tense. "I don't want you here," states Einar in greeting. "Neither do I," replies Jean flatly. But Einar is astonished to discover that Griff is the grandchild he never knew he had, and he grudgingly tells his long-lost family that they can stay in a junk-filled room in his basement.
Einar has spent the past 12 years frozen in grief and anger over his son's death, which he blames on Jean. The resulting emotional paralysis—and a corresponding drinking problem—have cost him his marriage and his cattle. All that is left are the ramshackle grounds of his homestead (the expansive ranchlands of Wyoming are played ably by Kamloops, British Columbia), ...1