Today we revisit Damian Lewis in An Unfinished Life, a movie directed by Lasse Hallström based on a novel by Mark Spragg who also wrote the script with his wife Virginia Korus Spragg. Damian stars in the movie along with Jennifer Lopez as well as two giants of the big screen, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman.
Honestly, I was surprised finding out An Unfinished Life was a Lasse Hallström movie when I watched it last year. “Why?” you may ask. Well, because even though I was not a Damian Lewis fan back in 2005, I certainly was a fan of Hallström’s cinema, I still am, and I would watch the movie just because Hallström had his name on it.
For those of you that do not know him, Lasse Hallström is a Swedish film director that first came to fame having made all ABBA music videos. Then he got into film directing and made some of my favorite films from the late 1990s and early 2000s including The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. You may have seen some of his other films including The Shipping News, Something to Talk About (I had a short-lived crush on Dennis Quaid, too, in college!) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with a ridiculously talented young actor called Leonardo Di Caprio! So, how come, HOW COME, I did not hear of An Unfinished Life when it hit movie theaters?
Well, Damian comes to my rescue in his SAG-AFTRA interview providing an explanation for why An Unfinished Life has stayed in obscurity relative to other Hallström movies.
Damian is, as usual, very humble sharing with the audience that, because he played an American in Band of Brothers, and then again in Dreamcatcher, and because he did not do anything like this SAG-AFTRA interview or any talk shows, nobody had an idea he was a Brit, and so he was offered parts in movies like An Unfinished Life:
Damian Lewis: “…a Lasse Hallström film which I made with Morgan Freeman, Bob Redford and J Lo.”
Stacey Hunt: “It was a good movie.”
Damian Lewis: “It was actually a good movie, but it was… Miramax had it and Miramax was in a fight with Disney or whatever it was and they were holding on to things, and releasing them at wrong times, and dumping them at different times, and the movie was kind of dumped.”
A little bit further research shows the movie is one of the last Bob and Harvey Weinstein projects when they worked with Disney. Miramax, probably because of the reason Damian cites in the interview, kept An Unfinished Life on the shelf for two years before releasing it. Meryl Poster, a Miramax executive who worked on the production in 2003, talks about the timing of the release:
“People kept saying ‘Why did it take so long? Why are they holding it back?’ Perhaps people think there’s something off because it’s coming out now, when the Weinsteins are leaving (Miramax). But it’s just getting pushed together with a lot of other movies. It should be able to stand on its own, and, in any other time period with Miramax, it would have stood on its own.”
This is sort of an ugly side of show business that we, the viewers, do not really know much about, isn’t it? Production companies can hold on to things and release stuff as they see fit. While that may be the optimal move for their own business, it may not be as optimal, say, for a young actor trying to build an acting career. This reminds me of academic journals that take their time to get back to young academics about their papers that it sometimes takes more than 2 years to publish a paper, an essential part of our “publish or perish” profession. It is always an uphill battle to build a career, isn’t it? Oh, well… Let’s go back to the movie.
It is unfortunate that An Unfinished Life did never get the attention it deserved when it was released in 2005 – two years after it was actually made. It may not be the movie of the year, and it is a bit too sentimental at times for my taste. However, this solid homecoming story of love and forgiveness gets elevated in the hands of a director who is an expert in bringing stories of dysfunctional families to big screen and the A-list cast. Here is the official trailer:
An Unfinished Life deals with the choices people make when they are dealt a pretty bad hand in life. Einar Gilkyson (Redford) is a rancher living in Oshawooa, Wyoming. His only son Griff dies when he was 21 in a car accident and Einar seems to have never recovered from that. Someone says at some point in the movie that “we are not supposed to outlive our children.” No, we are not.
It seems his son’s death made Einar a grumpy old man who does not talk much at all except for his daily visits to his Griff’s grave to talk to him about, well, everything. The only living figure Einar has in his life is his friend and former worker Mitch (Freeman) whom he has been living with for decades. Mitch has been attacked by a bear a year ago that left him with insufferable wounds for life. But he is the kind of man asking his friend Einar to set the bear free once he finds out that it has been caught and put in a cage.
The essence of the story arrives with a surprise visit from Einar’s long-lost daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) and his granddaughter Griff named after her father.
Einar openly tells Jean he does not want her there. Jean responds that she would not be on his doorstep should she have had another feasible alternative. She and Griff have no money. They need to stay there for a while and figure out what to do. We find out soon enough that Einar’s hostility towards Jean is coming from the fact that Jean was driving the car when Griff died. Einar holds her responsible for his son’s death. Still, because Jean and Griff have nowhere else to go, Einar takes them in. Mitch forgiving the bear that left him disabled for life is the perfect metaphor for Einar to understand what forgiveness is about and put it into practice.
But WHY did Jean and Griff end up on Einar’s door step?
Two words: Gary Winston. Jean’s ABUSIVE boyfriend.
Oh, man. We first meet Gary in his house with Jean and Griff. We see Jean sitting in the dark while Gary says he is sorry for what he has done… and we know what he has done when we finally see Jean’s face. Gary hit her.
Gary: “I uh… God, Jean. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a red mist or… something comes over me and I… but I feel like you backed me up in a corner and I… you do that and, uh… I hate it when I’m like that. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?”
Gary is a systemic abuser who has a quite dangerous anger management problem. When Jean keeps silent to his “can you forgive me?” he pushes the table violently, goes out and gets into his car.
For a split second, you feel like he will drive the car into the house. He does not do that, he leaves, but we all know we will see him again later. And not in a particularly pleasant way. While Jean and Griff spend all the money they have to get themselves to Wyoming for a new start, Gary has travel plans, too.
In Gary Winston, Damian brings to life a very unpleasant character, but it is a remarkable part that helps bring out Damian’s incredible range as an actor. I despise abusive partners. Well, who doesn’t? And I had a particular question in mind as I started watching the movie: whether I could find any character Damian brings to life despicable.
The answer is: Oh, YES! Gary Winston, every time he appears on the screen, gives you the CREEPS and yes, in caps, too! You see the bottled up anger in his crazy eyes and feel disturbed in front of your TV screen. He is the perfect abusive boyfriend. And I have to say I have found a little bit of Gary in Bobby Axelrod’s abusive voice mails to Lara in Billions Season 2 Episode 10 With or Without You.
How did Damian get into this project? Well, it seems he hesitated a bit about making this movie.
“It is a small but important role. I play an irredeemably nasty man and occasionally I had to ask myself whether I wanted to portray someone who was so horrible.But it’s a film with Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez so I’m in great company and you can’t fault that.”
And he didn’t even attempt to stay in character during the course of the film shoot.
“It is exhausting. I couldn’t concentrate for that long on being the ugly, violent piece of trailer-trash I was playing.”
Damian’s biggest scene in the movie is with Redford where the veteran actor beats the shit out of our guy! Damian says he gets a real kick out of fight scenes and it turns out he even convinced Hallström to do his own stunts for the big scene.
“I like doing physical acting.”
Well, Gary may be right that Einar has seen too many Westerns but Einar is definitely right this does not work in Gary’s favor! 😀 Physical indeed!
And, who knows, Robert Redford beating the shit out of you, could be a moment one may savor as a young actor? 😀 I remember Damian saying in an interview (Sadly, I could not find that interview when I recently searched for it) that he was quite excited to be in the coffee line with Redford on set 🙂
How did Damian prepare to play Gary?
He admits he avoided from doing in-depth research about abusive relationships and in particular about the kind of men who beat up their partners.
“Acting is about imagination so I didn’t speak to anybody about the role. I should be careful how I put this but I think I understood him. I have never struck a woman – let’s make that very clear – but I have been jealous before and it was irrational and utterly destructive.”
So Damian prefers to rely on his own instincts to put together the nastiest character he has played… to date. Remember An Unfinished Life was filmed earlier than The Escapist and I do not know about you but I think Rizza can give Gary a run for his money.
Damian also seems to be impressed by his co-star Jennifer Lopez and has kind words to say about her:
“She is terrific in the film and looks stunning, even without make-up. She is beautiful but she can play that lower-middle-class-girl thing convincingly.”
Here is Damian talking about his co-stars Redford and Lopez as well as director Hallström.
I agree with Damian to an extent about Lopez. As much as I find her performance quite dull, Jennifer Lopez has her moments in the movie. In particular, there is a scene where she makes you feel her pain as she talks about why she has not been able to get out of her abusive relationship with Gary. It is heartbreaking that she feels responsible for her husband’s death, and so somehow sees Gary as the punishment she deserves.
An unfinished life indeed.