In stark contrast to previous directorial outings such as Juno and Up in the Air, Jason Reitman explores love in its most dangerous form in the taut, simmering thriller Labor Day. Owing much to the outstanding performances of the two stellar leads, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, the film is both shrewd and staggeringly accomplished. Particular note should be made of the cinematography courtesy of Reitman’s usual right hand man Eric Steelberg, who superbly captures the suffocating intrusions and solemn loneliness of small town life in idyllic 1980′s Massachusetts.
Henry (Gattlin Griffith, child star of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling) is a 13-year-old boy living with his severely depressed, agoraphobic mother (Winslet). The Labor Day holiday weekend before school starts forces them in to a local trip to pick up supplies at the supermarket. Whilst scanning the comics, Henry is approached by a desperate, bleeding Frank (Brolin) for assistance. Coerced into giving Frank a lift back to the house, soon Henry and his mother find themselves at the whim of an escaped convict serving time for murder. The man is not the myth they see branded villainous on television, however. Frank becomes the father Henry has needed and the man his mother has lost. Through simple, everyday actions and behaviours, Reitman explores the familial dynamic, its triumphs and its frailties. Slowly the hot, lingering weekend unravels with an equal sense of hope and doom, and the fate of all three become ineluctably intertwined.
The excellent lead performances are deftly supported by an unusual and talented round-up of predominantly television actors including J.K. Simmons (The Closer), Clark Gregg (The Avengers), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek), Tom Lipinski (Suits) and a stand out performance from Brighid Fleming as Eleanor, young Henry’s rebellious love interest. Reitman’s sensitive handling of Henry’s discussions with Eleanor are refreshingly adept, and more significant when portrayed in comparison to how Henry witness’ Frank treat his mother. This becomes the underlying thematic of the film – what it is to be a good man, despite what circumstance befalls you. This is at times in the film warming and life-affirming; yet also tragically emphasised by the director in the film’s closing scenes.
Labour Day suffers at times from fits of intense melodrama weighed down by an unyielding score that borders on monotonous. Much has been made of the pivatol “peach pie scene” in which the sexual tension between Brolin and Winslet comes to the boil in the sweaty heat and nervous passion of the predicament they find themselves in. I cannot help but think too much has been made of this in cinematic terms – I refer back to the book, which is told through the lusty 13 year-old eyes of young Henry, and the scene provides an important moment in his coming-of-age. I actually think it is very well handled by Reitman who stays honest to the book wholeheartedly in his effective screenplay.
The film is specifically about one thing – love. It does not shy away from its complications, nor does it offer sympathy for the characters and their actions. I found it quite fortifying and honestly hopeful. Although it will most likely not feature in many critics’ best films of the year, I feel it will probably serve as one of the most underrated films of the year. Highly recommended.
Ben Haller, 2014
Film Review: Labor Day