Lasse Hallström's "An Unfinished Life" is so conventional it's almost audacious. No one makes movies like this anymore, for some bad reasons as well as good ones. A taciturn rancher who, still bitter over the death of his son some 10 years ago, relearns how to love by getting to know the granddaughter he never knew he had; a man who has been mauled by a bear, and who suffers such severe pain he can barely leave his bed, but who nonetheless defends the growly beast with convenient circle-of-life maxims like "He was just doin' what bears do." How are we, enlightened moviegoers of the new century, supposed to countenance such characters without snorting into our popcorn?
If "An Unfinished Life" had been made 10 or 12 years ago, we'd have, rightfully, dismissed it as an intensely earnest, overly manicured, run-of-the-mill melodrama. But today "An Unfinished Life" comes off more as a curiosity than anything. The picture is outrageously predictable and somewhat poky, but there's also something admirably bold about the way it so adamantly demands we swallow its hokum. I couldn't believe half the things that came out of these characters' mouths, and yet I found myself perfectly willing to hang around until the end, just to make sure every intensely obvious character transformation took place as promised -- and to find out what happened to the bear.
Robert Redford plays the grizzled, emotionally impaired rancher (he has the aggressively fictional name Einar Gilkyson) who's dismayed when his son's widow, Jean (Jennifer Lopez), whom he hasn't seen since his son's funeral, shows up on his down-at-the-heels Wyoming ranch with her 11-year-old daughter, Griff (the astute, appealing Becca Gardner), in tow. Einar blames Jean for his son's death -- he died in a car accident, and she was the one behind the wheel -- but we know for sure (just as surely as he doesn't) that his resentment is just a feeble attempt to cover his pain. We also know, as sure as Heidi wears a dirndl, that Griff is going to win her grandfather's affection. But for now, he's not budging, and Jean needs his help: She's finally gotten up the nerve to leave her dangerously abusive boyfriend, and she has nowhere else to go.
Einar welcomes Jean and Griff with barely a grunt, although he does show a touching tenderness with Mitch (Morgan Freeman), his longtime ranch hand and the man who has suffered so greatly at the mitts of that angry bear. Einar massages Mitch's ravaged back with businesslike authority; he administers the morphine shots that Mitch needs daily with the same matter-of-fact detachment that he shows while milking his one remaining cow. And when the bear shows up on Einar's property again -- he wanders into town, looking quizzically over a fence at a little girl on a tricycle, before scaring a bunch of preteen boys off their banana-seat bikes -- Einar goes after him with a shotgun: This is one problem he can solve. But Einar is talked out of firing his gun by the local sheriff (Josh Lucas), and the bear instead ends up as a pitiful caged attraction at a local park, a development that greatly distresses Mitch, who insists on calling the big lummox "my bear."
There's lots of criss-crossing bonding going on in "An Unfinished Life": Man with daughter-in-law and granddaughter, man with bear, and so forth. And the fact that it all sounds so nuts on paper, yet seems so confoundingly sensible on the screen, is testament to Hallström's gifts. "An Unfinished Life" is an extremely well-made picture, perhaps sometimes too well made: It moves forward with the efficiency of a well-greased machine. Still, it's pleasurable in itself to see the control Hallström has over the picture. And his cinematographer, the great Oliver Stapleton, pulls off some astonishingly casual-looking shots whose brilliance doesn't hit you until after the fact (as when two barn cats watch Einar, with semidetached interest, from the foreground, as he lopes across his yard in the background).
And even when they're made to utter dorky dialogue (the abusive boyfriend, a creepy redhead played by Damian Lewis, explains his behavior with lines like "You back me into a corner, and I hate it when I'm like that"), the actors seem to believe deeply in the picture around them, and that makes a difference. Lopez, as always, is a charming, believable presence. (Lopez is too often branded a "bad" actress, a verdict that discounts how immensely likable she manages to be even in the crappiest pictures.) Freeman is Freeman, as dependable as the phases of the moon -- he's good here, even though it's the kind of "good" he can now deliver in his sleep.
And Redford, even as he's playing the stock silent guy who, though he's been weakened by age, is still guided by an impulse to protect the wimmin-folk, is surprisingly entertaining. Redford isn't an actor I feel much warmth for: With a few exceptions, he has always struck me as a stiff, pretty prop. But even in a business that's somewhat kinder to aging men than it is to women, Redford's willingness, finally, to look his age -- after struggling too valiantly for years to remind us of his boyish good looks as he started to lose them -- is something we shouldn't take lightly. Redford summons some gnarled emotional complexity here, particularly in a scene where he visits his son's grave to read him the junk mail he's still getting, more than 10 years after his death.
And what about the bear? I won't tell you what happens to him -- the credits list him as "Bart the Bear" -- though I will tell you he steals every scene he appears in. At one point we see him in his nighttime cage, illuminated by a too-bright overhead light (how's a bear supposed to get any sleep in here?), hunched in a disconsolate heap. Another time, he's sprawled in a bored stupor on the floor of his daytime cage, as children wave and chatter at him. We see him only from behind, a depressed blob of silvery-brown fur who's probably wondering if being made into a rug would really be such a bad thing. This bear is supposed to symbolize many things in "An Unfinished Life": The inability to let go of grief and anger, and the need for emotional freedom at all costs. But in the end, he's just a bear, going about the honest business of doin' what bears do. If anything, he's a metaphor for the movie itself -- a picture that has ambled, almost accidentally, into a time and place where it doesn't belong.