Review: Jason Reitman's 'Labor Day' is a suspenseful ride if you believe
TELLURIDE, Colo. - You may have met many a someone in your life whose passion for being in love is almost addictive. Someone who loves the intimacy so much it blinds them to the reality around them. Someone for whom there is no middle ground in a relationship. Either they are 110% in or they are out. That, in a nutshell, is the character of Adele, played by Kate Winslet, in Jason Reitman's new drama "Labor Day." It's also the crux of a storyline that will reward viewers who are willing to take a big jump.
Set in 1987 New Hampshire, the movie is an adaption of Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name and is primarily told through the eyes of Henry, Adele's 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith). We begin the Thursday before Labor Day weekend and through the voice over of an older Henry (yes, yet another movie narration by Tobey Maguire) we learn of his attempts to break his mother out of her agoraphobic depression. His father has left Adele, remarried and has a new daughter and step-son, but Henry won't leave his mother to join them. We initially believe their divorce caused Adele's deep slide into depression, but will later learn that's not completely the case. On this day, however, they make their monthly trek for supplies to the equivalent of a low end Walmart and Adele is so uncomfortable outside her home she can barely get the car into reverse.
At the store, Adele tries to focus on shopping as Henry walks over to the magazine aisle where we see he's intrigued by the beautiful models on the fashion magazines (puberty!). He's soon interrupted by Frank (Josh Brolin), who asks for his help. Henry is clearly confused as Frank is wearing a store vest which insinuates he works there and yet he is bleeding on the side of his stomach through his shirt Before you know it, Frank has approached Adele and proceeds to scare her into helping him by subtly threatening to hurt her son. Frank is lucky in one respect that Adele is so emotionally fragile she doesn't scream for help in the middle of the a very large, public store. On the other hand, you may wonder why Adele's own issues don't trigger an instinctive cry for help. The trio are soon in Adele's car where they discover his "ride" is to their home.
After reaching their house, Frank insists he's just going to sit tight for a few hours before heading towards the train track. A TV report soon informs Adele and Henry that Frank is an escaped convict that was serving an 18-year sentence for murder. At this point in the film, Reitman begins to experiment by using flashback scenes to establish Frank's story. As the picture progresses the details of the flashbacks become more and more distinct and by the end of the film we discover how Frank ended up incarcerated. Back in the present day, Frank also begins to show more and more interest in staying around as he complains his leg hurts from jumping from a two-story hospital window to get free. And, of course, there is the obligatory "you don't know the whole story" moment when Adele and Henry question his conviction.
As the story moves to Friday, the film begins to make a jump that some viewers will have trouble with. And, you could argue, it's an incredibly difficult suspension of disbelief moment for any director to pull off. Essentially, Frank's charismatic charm, handyman and - no joke - pie-making skills begin to wear down the weak Adele and she falls for him. In fact, she falls for him pretty much by Saturday evening. If you can believe this scenario then the rest of picture will be a suspenseful ride as you root for a happy ending for the new Bonnie and Clyde. If not, the movie will likely feel like a series of well-directed scenes that has trouble coalescing into a complete experience.
No matter what side you fall on, a lion's share of the credit of what works has to go to Reitman. "Labor Day" is the antithesis of the loud and brash tone he made his name with in films such as "Young Adult" and don't expect anywhere near the amount of laughs as "Up in the Air." Instead, "Labor Day" is a drama that seems more in the wheelhouse of a director such as Sam Mendes (yes, Winslet's ex-husband), Todd Field (yes, Winslet's collaborator on "Little Children") or even Derek Cianfrance. Reitman has never teased such versatility in terms of tone or visuals before and what he's achieved here should continue to expand his creative horizons.
Reitman is assisted by another strong performance by Winslet who once again proves she might be the second best living actress on the planet after Meryl Streep (and she is likely the film's strongest awards player). Brolin is also very good although you wonder if another actor could have made the quick seduction of Adele a tad more believable. It's his work with Griffith that makes much of the movie work, however. Griffith isn't necessarily a revelation, but he's pretty damn close. It's a superb and natural turn for the 14-year-old who you'd never believe already has a substantial resume of work in Hollywood.
Special recognition needs to go to casting directors Jessica Kelly and Suzanne Smith for a supporting cast that is simply pitch perfect. Major contributions include Clark Gregg as Henry's father, Tom Lipinski as a young Frank (a doppelganger for Brolin), Michah Fowler as a heart-breaking Barry, Brooke Smith as Barry's mom, James Van Der Beek as an annoyingly suspicious cop (his best work in years) and Brighid Flemming as Henry's increasingly forward love interest.
The picture also features an unconventional score by Rolfe Kent that doesn't overdo the dramatic moments and gorgeous cinematography by longtime Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg.
"Labor Day" is currently screening at the 40th Telluride Film Festival and will also screen at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in limited release on Dec. 25.