Jason Reitman made his name making high quality comedy dramas and Labor Day marks something of a departure for him as not only is it his first period film but also, in my opinion at least, is his first out-and-out drama. It is 1987 and an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) takes refuge in the house of a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her only son (Gattlin Griffith). He initially is holding mother and son against their will but as the long weekend passes he becomes less of a kidnapper and more of a refugee as he takes on the role of husband and father that both are missing from their lives.
Reitman is clearly trying to make something a little different to his normal fare here but is doing so in such a self-conscious way that I think he gets a little lost. Scenes within the house are so po-faced it is hard to take them seriously. Josh Brolin may be playing an escaped convict but he plays him as such a gentle giant, such a caring and considerate man, that it is hard to see why he would have escaped from jail in the first place rather than continue to serve his time. Winslet’s sad divorcee is a fragile creature and it is not hard to see why she might start to develop feelings for her kidnapper but the combination of her need for a saviour and his deliberate saviour-like qualities seems a little forced. Clark Gregg plays the ex-husband and father as a sweet and caring man who is perhaps a little bland thanks to limited characterisation. Again it is not obvious why we should see him as being so inadequate in the role of father for an escaped criminal to seem like a viable option. It is as though a particular outcome for the film was sought and so characters were written to suit.
The real star of the film is Gattlin Griffith as the son Henry. It is through his eyes we see this whole ordeal and maybe this is why some of the characters come across as caricatures. Griffith is very much viewing the film along with the audience as I don’t think either of us could ever quite decide if we wanted Brolin to get caught or not.
Jason Reitman has made a quality film with plenty of beautiful images and a raft of strong performances. The film is almost a tactile experience and has such a fully realised setting I felt like I could reach out and feel the roughness of the furniture or taste the peach pie. Where the films struggles is how seriously it takes itself considering its slightly implausible plot. At various times in the film I was incredulous when I realised that only two days had passed when the amount of change in the characters’ relationships would have requited much, much longer. It was a relief when the few scenes set outside the house brought with them laughter and I could take a breath as the story within the house wasn’t going to allow for any smiles unless you were considering how wondering Josh Brolin’s convict was as a family man.
Labor Day (Labour Day?) is a good film if a little too laboured (HA!) to be believable.
Labor Day screens at the festival on the 15th and 19th October and is in UK cinemas on 7th February 2014.