Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Shipping News, The Cider House Rules) has a way with well-meaning, slightly quirky drama that usually finds its way into the hearts and minds of thinking filmgoers seeking haven in comfortable, mature material. Although its "nice" quota is upped a couple of notches, An Unfinished Life fits snugly into this oeuvre.

Not unlike Sounder, A River Runs Through It and so many other films, Hallström's latest embraces a corner of rural America where there's just enough menace, wildlife and colorful characters to stir things up and promote escape (if not tourism). Ultimately, all's well on the western plains or in the valleys, but it's a journey (spiritual if not geographical) that must be taken.
Einar (Robert Redford) is an angry, beaten, alcoholic farmer who tends to his homestead and to Mitch (Morgan Freeman), his best friend and former farmhand who has been severely mauled by a bear. Family tragedy has further beaten down Einar: His beloved son, a rodeo star, died in a tragic car accident. Einar blames former daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez) because she was at the wheel. The two are estranged until Jean, fleeing abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) with daughter Griff (Becca Gardner), lands at the farmstead seeking shelter.

As these things go, Einar is cold as a mountain night but allows his relatives a temporary stopover. Also as these things go, Jean fits comfortably into the nearby town, even taking on handsome sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas) as a lover, while Einar and his tomboy granddaughter bond. The newcomers also take to invalid Mitch, who wisely understands (as will most audiences) that Einar's salvation lies within a reconciliation with Jean.

Again as these things go, bad boy/mad boy Gary will throw a wrench in things with his arrival in town. Obviously sociopathic, he just cannot, will not do without Jean.

An Unfinished Life excels in its performances. Redford, who has much to do as the tortured recovering alcoholic, is mesmerizing. He's an iconic Old West warrior and survivor, a hardened homesteader adept at righting a wrong by way of a well-placed fist or bullet. And Freeman, who has much to do in making more of his victimized character than the script actually allows, delivers a warm and convincing turn as the keen observer of those around him.

As happens in these films, there's some whimsy along the way. Here, the fun surrounds the antics and prowling of the mean bear that is Mitch's nemesis and the object of much fuss.

With its gorgeous locations (the farmstead, especially) contributing much to this delicious spectacle, An Unfinished Life is highly satisfying work. But it's a nature-steeped, backroads journey that may be too middle-of-the-road for big numbers.

-Doris Toumarkine