Having sat on the shelf for two years while Disney and Miramax sorted out their affairs, An Unfinished Life ought to know a few things about watching the world go by without you. And it does know a few things. It's just that what it knows are things we could have learned from Dr. Phil. Set in Big Sky Country, this contemporary Western stars Robert Redford as a cattle rancher who's never been the same since his son was killed in a car accident 10 years ago. Having sold off his herd and been abandoned by his wife, he now pokes around the place, milking the cow and trading barbs with his hired hand (Morgan Freeman), who was mauled by a bear and still gets daily morphine shots in the butt from his boss.
Into this jest-a-coupla-ol'-cowboys idyll arrives the daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez) who was driving the car that day, along with the granddaughter (Becca Gardner) that grandpa didn't even know he had. Redford has never forgiven Lopez for killing his son, whom he talks to every day at a single-marker gravesite over on the far corner of the property. But you can bet he's about to, with a little help from Freeman and Gardner. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules), who likes to give his actors a lot of room to breathe, An Unfinished Life covers some well-trod territory, but at least it takes its time and avoids tripping over its own feet.
And as often as not, it achieves a laconic mood that seems just right for the mountains in the distance. (This is one of those movies where the scenery chews the actors.) Adapting his own novel, Mark Spragg (along with his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg) finds the wide-open spaces between what people say and what they're thinking. And there's real humor here, especially from Redford, who nails the cute part of being a curmudgeon but fails at the brutal part. Lopez isn't up to the role of a woman whom life has battered into submission, but she's as appealing as ever. And Gardner's great as her fed-up daughter. But it's Freeman who quietly walks off with the movie in a role that must have been a nice warm-up for Million Dollar Baby.