There’s no funny or punny way to put this – Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is a film about human needs and desires and so how they so often (and so irrevocably) lead to human stupidity and error. A domestic drama about grief, tragedy, growth, and renewal, there’s not a hamburger phone to be found in the whole production, and even Reitman’s trademark banter is held at bay for nearly the film’s entire runtime (the filmmaker does let it fly for a truncated dinner sequence). A film about the human condition, Labor Day is both incredibly relatable and deeply frustrating – after all, those are the sort of emotions anyone would feel if they let an escaped convict into their house and promptly fell in love with him.
Tuned to his agoraphobic mother’s intense grief, thirteen-year-old (Gattlin Griffith, preternaturally steady for his age) Henry has grown up quickly so as to assume the role of man of the house, and while he showers Adele (Kate Winslet, solid and stunning as ever) with love and attention, even he is aware that she has some needs he can’t meet, and Adele’s loneliness (physical and otherwise) are ever-present. Henry, of course, also has needs – including new clothes for school, thanks to an apparent summer growth spurt that have rendered most of his wardrobe far too small. Finally pushed out of their house, Adele and Henry embark on a shopping trip that’s unexpectedly interrupted by a bleeding man who needs assistance he thinks the pair can provide. While Frank (Josh Brolin) is polite enough when he’s asking Henry for help, his needs take on an edge once he asks Adele for a ride, especially after her intuition (and the blood on Frank’s face) make it obvious that he’s a man on the wrong side of something. It’s that edge – and the veiled threats that come with it – that land Frank in the backseat of Adele’s car and then in the center of her home.
For the next five days, he remains there, and the three of them experience a range of emotions and decisions most people won’t face in the span of five years.
Frank’s care of Adele starts early – within mere hours of the pseudo-kidnapping, he’s lovingly tying her up (no, this isn’t as kinky as it sounds, he uses it a preventive measure should the cops show up so that Adele looks innocent) and spoon-feeding her homemade chili. The eventual escalation of their relationship is striking, but it’s certainly not unbelievable, and Reitman carefully lays out the foundation with the maximum of efficiency. Frank is remarkably adept at domestic duties, from cooking to home repair to car maintenance, he can do it all – and he does, neatly slipping into the cracks (even the literal ones) of Adele and Henry’s home to make himself indispensible. Frank feeds his new fake family, both with actual food and physical attention (thickly-laid on, the food symbolism wears quickly, though it still proves effective).
But the threat of violence and discovery, especially from Frank, is never far from the surface, which makes a number of choices on the part of all three leads continuously hard to swallow. And yet, their actions remain relatable, even as we feel unsettled, doomed to watch as outsiders, unable to correct the mistakes made in service to the human condition.
Both Adele and Frank have secrets to spare, and Reitman chooses to unfold the darkness of their pasts through very different methods – whereas Frank’s previous life (and the reason for his incarceration) is conveyed via a series of dreamy flashbacks, Adele simply lays bare all of her most deep-seated issues once Frank finally asks her about them. While the slow build to the full reveal is a fine (if obvious) choice of conveyance, neither Frank’s flashbacks nor Adele’s exposition-laden admissions cohere with the rest of the film, and both are examples of rare missteps on Reitman’s part.
Rolfe Kent’s near-constant score, however, seamlessly inserts itself into the film, building tension where appropriate, providing a sense of peace when necessary, and generally permeating the entire outing.
Labor Day is Reitman’s most accomplished, mature, and emotional work yet, a feat for any filmmaker, but one especially exciting for a young one like Reitman whose work gets markedly and exponentially better with each outing. Reitman’s ability to grow and change his work tremendously between each production is notable enough, yet what’s even more uncanny is that even as his resume improves, his past work doesn’t suffer upon reflection (everything he’s made is still good, even when his films get better) – it’s just that Labor Day is the best one yet.
The Upside: Solid performances from the entire cast, an essential score from Rolfe Kent, inspired set and costume design, crisply lensed by Eric Steelberg, handily juggles domestic drama with heart-pumping thrills, adeptly addresses the “big questions” of the human condition without being preachy or inaccessible.
The Downside: Occasionally suffers from too-obvious metaphors (we get it, food and sex are irrevocably linked), the final act vacillates wildly between brilliantly executed thriller elements and emotionally manipulative resolutions, the flashbacks don’t easily integrate into the narrative.
On the Side: Joyce Maynard’s novel was released in July of 2009 – within just two months, Reitman was already adapting it for the big screen.