In 1948, having used and occasionally abused John Wayne for the previous 10 years, director John Ford saw Wayne's performance in Howard Hawks's "Red River" and famously muttered, "I never knew the big [guy] could act."
Robert Redford is no John Wayne. On political grounds alone, Redford would recoil from any such comparison. But what they do share is the tag "movie star," those strange creatures who mix self-effacement, physical grace, and utter self-confidence into a cocktail of charisma that makes them irresistible on screen - and often incapable of playing anyone but themselves.
Gable had it. Cooper had it. Redford's pal Paul Newman still has it (although he's been more adventurous in his roles). And Redford has been a captive of it, willing or otherwise, for most of his career.
It's this status, as perhaps the last of the great movie stars, that makes Redford's performance in "An Unfinished Life" such a revelation, even a joy. Exhibiting a previously unseen depth and complexity, he plays Einar Gilkyson, a Wyoming rancher whose ranch is as much a shadow as he is: Mostly played out, and little more than a rest home now for himself and his disabled ranchhand, Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), Einar's spread is about as unromantic a setting as a western's ever occupied. And Einar is as unromantic a cowboy.
Redford - looking his age, but ennobled by it - gives a performance and creates a character that might have been played by Clint Eastwood. But Einar carries his own echoes and an emotional vulnerability beyond anything Eastwood's ever done. If "An Unfinished Life" is Redford's bid for an acting Oscar, so be it. (He was nominated once, for "The Sting"). For Redford fans, it's a new frontier.
Enter the dame - make that two: Jennifer Lopez is Einar's long-estranged daughter-in-law, Jean, widow of his dead son and mother of the granddaughter Einar never knew he had. (Lopez is breathtakingly adequate, but newcomer Becca Gardner as Griff perfectly embodies the perpetual uncertainty of the pre-adolescent). Abused by the latest in a string of boyfriends, Jean turns up at the unwelcoming Einar's with daughter in hand, and psycho Romeo (Damian Lewis) in hot pursuit.
The Redford tropes are easy to spot. Watch the mother and daughter being reborn on the open land, under the gaze of the weathered Redford, and try not to think of "The Horse Whisperer." Even the grizzly that so badly mauled poor Mitch recalls the wheat-blond era of "Jeremiah Johnson." But these elements only punctuate the superiority of this performance. With John Ford-like wonder, you watch Einar, at his dead son's gravesite, talking to his son. And when the scene is over, it seems a minor miracle has been performed. Not only does Redford nimbly sidestep mawkishness, he does it with the kind of virtuosic aplomb he's never shown before.
He's not alone in the movie, of course. There's the ever-reliable Freeman, whose Mitch is nursed by Einar with daily injections of morphine and biting repartee (they're great together, and funny). Josh Lucas, who can be abrasive, is very good as the nice-guy sheriff who has to fix his own copy machine. And Camryn Manheim, as the earth-motherly waitress and tour guide to Jean's readjustment, keeps herself admirably under control.
You can't say director Lasse Hallström has had much recent luck - "The Shipping News" (2002) was perhaps the worst in a series of best-selling books he managed to turn into unwatchable clabber. He has a much better time with the original screenplay for "An Unfinished Life" by the husband-wife team of Mark and Virginia Spragg. It may have maudlin moments, but it also contains a great deal of humor - and a character custom-cut for one of the biggest names in movies, a natural who's always made it look so easy. Maybe it never really was. But you can't blame us: We knew he could act, but never so well. Grade: B+
• Rated PG-13 for some violence including domestic abuse, and language.