When it comes to cinematic releases, the early portion of the year is often considered a dumping ground for movies the studios would like to bury. So naturally, January has had no shortage of duds. But Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s unexpected venture into melodrama, offers some relief from the barrage of unwatchable films in theaters.
While it’s filled with eye-rolling moments – mostly involving pie (more on that later) – there is enough to enjoy about this film. Its rich cinematography is apparent from the first shot, and the lush scenery is gorgeous to look at. It beautifully sets up the atmospheric nature of the drama, and does a great job of capturing small town life. Whereas August: Osage County offered a portrait of an isolated place you probably wouldn’t want to visit, Labor Day provides a glimpse into a more inviting setting in the fictional town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, the film centers on Adele (the always remarkable Kate Winslet), a single mother who suffers from depression so crippling, she can barely leave her home. While running errands in town with her son Henry (the riveting Gattlin Griffith), a charismatic yet unnerving stranger named Frank (a haunting Josh Brolin) indirectly threatens them into bringing him home with them. He’s wounded and seeking refuge from the police, who are out searching for him. It turns out Frank is a convict who escaped from law enforcement while recovering from appendix surgery at a nearby hospital. Initially, Adele and Henry go along with his demands seemingly out of fear, but that dissipates rather quickly as they grow close to him.
The entire story takes place over the course of just three days (over Labor Day weekend to be exact) and yet it feels as though far more time passes. Perhaps this is meant to signify the fast-paced way in which someone falls in love and feels as though they have known someone for much longer than they actually have. This certainly seems to be the case for Adele, who quickly forms an intense relationship with Frank.
Brolin brings a seductiveness to the character that we see play out the moment Frank first enters her home; there’s an odd tenderness to the way he ties her to a chair. Not only that, he swiftly fills the void that has been missing in both Adele and Henry’s life. He does construction on the house, plays baseball with Henry, and does the mambo with Adele…among other things.
He’s also a great cook, and in an unintentionally funny sequence, he teaches the two of them how to make a peach pie. Frank is so skilled and compassionate that one starts to wonder if he’s just a figment of Adele’s imagination – a fantasy she may be in desperate need of, given the mundane state of her daily life.
Of course, all of these sweet intimate moments are marred by the fact that the news is filled with alerts regarding a dangerous escaped murderer, which has set the town into a panic. So what exactly did Frank do roughly twenty years ago that sent him to prison?
One of the greatest strengths of the film is that we aren’t quite sure until the conclusion. We are given small glimpses of the night Frank is believed to have committed a horrific double murder, and little else. This narrative technique was used brilliantly in Alex Karpovsky’s little-seen movie Rubberneck (2012), and it also plays out rather effectively here. Adele’s backstory is also horrifying, and Winslet is at her best when she finally delves into the details of her past, evoking some eerie and unsettling memories.
It’s Labor Day‘s polarizing ending that many have found fault with. This is largely because there is too much of a disconnect between the conclusion and the rest of the story. But a weak ending doesn’t erase the compelling nature and alluring performances that the film has to offer. This is definitely a departure for Reitman, but we’re interested to see what he comes up with next.
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