“For such a distinguished, creative filmmaker – this remains a disappointingly formulaic turn…”
Jason Reitman’s films are gradually becoming more and more serious and earnest in their conviction, in a career that has spawned the successful, witty dramas such as Up in the Air and Young Adult. With his latest Labor Day, Reitman has offered his most dramatic of all, yet for such a distinguished, creative filmmaker – this remains a disappointingly formulaic turn, with his comedic touch noticeably absent.
Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) lives a quiet life at home with his depressed single mum Adele (Kate Winslet), until he stumbles across rogue fugitive Frank (Josh Brolin), who demands a place to hide out. With blood seeping out of his stomach, and sweat trickling down his cheek, Frank is an intimidating figure – but once they get back to the Wheeler’s residence, he shows off a tenderness, and ability to cooperate. However as he forms a strong bond with both Adele and Henry alike – personifying everything that was lacking in both of their lives, the intense police search for the man who recently escaped from jail, brings about a foreboding atmosphere, as they know that this unexpected jubilation can’t last forever.
It’s intriguing how we witness events unravel through the eyes of just a young boy, therefore making it possible to see the good in Frank, in a similar way to how Jeff Nichols’ Mud managed to do – picking up on the naïve, impressionable qualities of our protagonist. It’s also refreshing to see this romantic tale from a relatively detached character, as so often in dramas such as this we take the perspective of one of the two parties in the love scenario. That way other themes also come in to play, such as how Henry desires a father figure in his life, yet conversely how he is concerned, and somewhat jealous, that Frank may be taking his mother away from him.
It’s also tense and disquieting to see the world from such an unpredictable, volatile source – as someone who can naively (and accidentally) spill the beans of Frank’ whereabouts at any given opportunity. Frank remains a compelling creation, as he gives both Henry and Adele the confidence they both need in their lives – though it’s a message very unsubtly enforced. His kind heart and patience is overstated, though in his defence, he makes a mean chilli – and don’t even get me started on his peach tart. This is as much a cooking show as it is a romantic drama. It is effective that we don’t find out Frank’s crime until late on however, maintaining his elusive nature, as somebody we can’t truly judge nor trust. He could be completely innocent, or he could have been a brutal killer – and it’s this unreliable ambiguity which provides the suspense.
Nonetheless Labor Day suffers from taking too mawkish an approach at times, while it’s also increasingly difficult to believe in this story, as Reitman opts for a safe, predictability at times, not truly taking any surprise turns. The most frustrating aspect of all, however, is the very final 10 minutes, as you question its entire inclusion – leaving this narrative with no ambiguity at all, with a highly superfluous finale that provokes a somewhat bitter taste as you leave the cinema – a taste that lingers long after the credits roll.
About the Author
Stefan Pape is a Film Critic for TFM. Follow @stefanpape29