Sunday, February 2, 2014

Labor Day (Theatrical Review)

Labor Day (2013)
Drama, 111 minutes
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith and Tobey Maguire

I was apprehensive attending the Saturday morning showing of Jason Reitman's Labor Day. Although I almost always avoid reviews and trailers when I am certain I will see a movie, I had heard the mostly negative buzz for Reitman's fifth movie. I also knew that this wouldn't contain the humor that I loved in Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. In short, I was afraid that Reitman's perfect record would be broken, but in my mind at least, he's still batting a thousand. If you're a Reitman fan, I urge you to stop reading until you have seen the movie. It's impossible to talk about it without giving away significant plot points.

For those of you who are undecided, I'm not going to mention anything that isn't revealed in the trailer.

Adele (Kate Winslet) plays a single mother who lives with her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Her former husband had a child with another woman and Adele struggles to cope with depression and social anxiety. She barely leaves the house, shopping just once a month for supplies from the local store. It might be difficult to understand this condition if you have never suffered from it. Some days are good, and it's possible to talk to a total stranger; other days are difficult, and the slightest trigger can result in a surge of panic. This fight or flight feeling can be overwhelming, and, as a coping technique, those who suffer from anxiety run through every possible scenario before facing the world.

You can imagine Adele's horror when Henry introduces her to Frank (Josh Brolin), who just met him in the store and asked for a ride. I can imagine Adele wondering how to extract herself from the situation without upsetting her son. Does Frank look safe, or could he turn out to be dangerous? Frank more or less insists that Adele help him, and then demands to be driven to her home. He's an escaped convict.

This is not the Reitman that we have come to know and love. Make no mistake, Labor Day is a drama. It plays out somewhat like a Hitchcock movie, but instead of seeing things from the viewpoint of the man on the run, we see things through the eyes of Adele and Henry. Frank just wants to rest for a while and says that he will leave that night by train, but Labor Day weekend is approaching and the trains aren't running.

The story is set in 1987, and the narration is handled by Tobey Maguire, who also shows up later in the story as an adult version of Henry. If you're planning to see this movie because Maguire is involved, his role is fairly minor. This is all about the interaction between Adele and Frank, and how it impacts Henry. The acting is superb, and Winslet thoroughly deserved her Golden Globe nomination.

As the trailer shows, this film isn't a traditional crime drama. Adele has missed her husband and Frank doesn't seem all that threatening. The news bulletins say that he is a murderer serving 18 years, but he insists that things didn't happen the way they were described on TV. We eventually learn the truth through flashbacks, but I won't talk about that here. We are also shown more of Adele's past, and come to understand some of the things that trigger her anxiety. These troubled people find that they like each other, and both Adele and Henry seem content to have Frank around. Instead of treating them as prisoners, he even fixes things around the house.

I found myself actually rooting for Frank to escape and it reminded me of Roger Ebert's comments about the scene in Psycho where we wanted the car to sink into the water when Norman Bates was hiding it. I keep mentioning Hitchcock because tension and suspense is present throughout the film. I think I was engrossed in the story for every single moment of the 111 minutes.

So why are the reviews so negative? Is the story unrealistic? Not to me. Is the ending contrived or weak? I certainly didn't think so. I was never bored and the resolution wasn't immediately obvious. The actors didn't put a foot wrong either. Were people disappointed by the lack of Reitman's established formula? I really don't know why the reviews are so bad. I can assure you that I would echo those opinions if the same were true for me, but I loved Labor Day. The score was subtle and effective, the pacing good, and the atmosphere just right.

The only difficult thing is deciding whether to give the film 4.5 or 5 stars, and I think it deserves a 5. If you like Reitman at all, please give this a chance and make up your own mind. I'm delighted that I did.

Overall score 5/5

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