TIFF 2013: Labor Day – Movie Review

Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire
Runtime: 111 min
Rating: 14A

Many directors specialize in one genre and choose to work only within it. The acclaimed Canadian director Jason Reitman has found critical and commercial success with comedies such as Juno and Up in the Air. With his new film Labor Day, Reitman tackles a dramatic mystery with both thrilling and romantic undertones, and this unconventional yet astounding film proves that he can deliver much more than just the laughs.

Labor Day relates the tragic story of Adele (Kate Winslet) from the perspective of her thirteen-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). After her husband leaves her, reclusive Adele struggles with depression and longs for love, leaving Henry vainly attempting to fill the roles of both son and spouse. On a rare trip into town, the pair meet Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict serving eighteen years for murder, who forces them to allow him refuge in their secluded house. Against all odds, Frank and Adele begin to form a passionate romantic connection. At least, it appears as if they do; one can never be sure of Frank’s true motives, and it is possible that Adele is so desperate for love that she has become blind to manipulation. Amidst these events, young Henry struggles not only with a budding paternal relationship for which he warily longs, but also with the difficulties of approaching adolescence.

Labor Day

This film depicts a sad story right from the initial frames, where a grown Henry (Tobey Maguire) begins a continuous, reflective voice-over explaining his mother’s sorrow and his own attempts to help her. As the film progresses, flashbacks within the lives of both Adele and Frank begin to explain the mysteries surrounding both of these tragic characters. Winslet presents a frail and wounded figure in Adele, standing in stark contrast to Brolin’s Frank, who is striking in his intensity. Even beside these seasoned stars, Griffith still stands out as a young actor to watch. Although his character does not speak many lines, the manner in which he steadily and silently observes all that occurs entrances an audience and causes them to do the same. Griffith is able to convey much simply through the expressions on his face, demonstrating an immense talent at an early age. Winslet and Brolin also speak few words to each other, communicating mainly through looks and touches. Each moment of interaction between these characters is uncertain as they walk a very fine line between violence and tenderness, creating intriguing ambiguity for an audience that can never be sure of what it is exactly that they are seeing.

Jason Reitman

Reitman has crafted a mystery that is simultaneously tense and tragic without ever becoming uncomfortable. The pace is slow, covering only a long weekend, but each scene is thorough in its details and riveting in its imagery. An incredible score masterfully builds tension until it is close to erupting, before drawing back at the final moment time and time again, and many sounds are magnified to augment the anxiety. Scenes depicting Frank teaching Adele and Henry how to bake and play baseball are both sweet and sensual as seen through the eyes of the young protagonist. An audience is unable to trust these scenes, however, as they clearly depict the idealized family situation for which Henry longs. Indeed, it is both Adele and her son who are falling in love with Frank, as both see him as possible fulfillment for that which they miss in their lives.

Somehow, Labor Day manages to be a tense, sad, mysterious, and lovely film all at once. The performances are predictably stellar, even though they are often silent and understated. It is Reitman’s direction, however, that truly shines. The film maintains a sense of mystery throughout, revealing the stories of the characters slowly and gradually. Each scene contains beauty as violence and sensuality mingle, creating ambiguity for an audience that cannot help but remain transfixed by a story about the devastating consequences of loss. This film is definitely one to watch come awards season, and every accolade will be well deserved.

Photo Credits: Toronto International Film Festival