Film Review: Labor Day

Labor Day

Kate Winslet is no stranger to playing complex, multi-layered characters.

In her new film, Labor Day, the Academy Award winner takes on the role of Adele, an aggressively agoraphobic single mom who lives with her tween son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Not only can she not lift a finger without her hands shaking, she also only leaves her house once a month to pick up groceries and supplies from a local convenience store. And by astutely observing how she mourns the loss of love and ambition in her life, Henry has taken on the role of caregiver for his mother.

But unlike some of Winslet’s previous characters – like Revolutionary Road’s April, Little Children’s Sarah, or the titular character in the HBO miniseries, Mildred PierceLabor Day’s Adele is not someone whose immense sadness comes as a result of a laundry list of regrets or paths not taken. Instead, she’s someone who has been dealt some of the most tragic cards that life can offer. This leaves her with a profound sense of resignation and a fragile day-to-day existence. Simply put, her son provides her with the only reason to get out of bed in the morning.

“There is, sort of, a common thread that runs through all of them, which is that they’re in situations that they are trying to basically find their way out of—and find themselves at the same time. There’s got to be something on a subconscious level that I relate to that maybe I’m not even aware of,” Winslet recently told The Hollywood Reporter while discussing the various depressed women she’s played throughout her career.

“I would certainly say that relationships in my own life, from a young age, have featured very heavily. I’ve always been in a committed, strong relationship, from when I was 16 years old,” the actress continued. “I was a serial monogamist. I just didn’t do the flings and things; I just couldn’t do it because I’m a very determined, committed, passionate person. If I’ve ever been in a situation in my own life that hasn’t been going the way that I had thought it would, I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk away without giving a fight, you know? And so that, I suppose, is what I have done in my own life, and, as a consequence, I’ve ended up playing characters who, in tandem with those periods in my own life, subconsciously, were in something that they were trying to get away from.”

Adele had lost hope of escaping and finding inner peace long ago. That is, until Labor Day weekend in 1987, when a series of terrifying circumstances force her to harbor a fugitive in her suburban New Hampshire home.

During one of her monthly outings, Adele encounters Frank (Josh Brolin), a bloodstained stranger who asks her for a ride while firmly gripping Henry’s neck. When they get into the car, Frank reveals that the place he needs to go is Adele’s house, so that he can hide out for a few hours until the police stop looking for him and he can continue on his way.

When they arrive at the house, Frank suggests that he tie Adele to a chair in her kitchen. That way, if he’s found, she can claim to have been kidnapped and won’t be seen as an accomplice to his escape. Reluctantly, Adele agrees under the condition that Frank not harm her son.

But as Adele’s trembling hands remain confined with rope, she begins to bond with the man holding her hostage. It’s not long before Frank starts to put his mark on her house – whether it’s by fixing loose floorboards, getting rid of the crink in the door, or by cooking delicious meals that Adele and Henry can’t help but salivate over.

Naturally, Frank’s visit goes from a handful of hours into an overnight stay, the overnight stay turns into a period of a few days, and a few days turns into visions of happily-ever-after. As Adele watches adoringly while Frank teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, she rediscovers what it means to have something to look forward to and to dream of a better future. Despite the circumstances that brought them together, could Frank and Adele be one another’s salvations?

Director Jason Reitman is convinced Winslet is the perfect actress for the part. “There’s no other actress that brings to life vulnerable, broken women without judging them and then making them flower in a beautiful way, making them sensual and making the audience want to watch them fall in love,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I really relied on her, making a movie where the characters almost don’t talk and everything is conveyed through a glance or a little touch. She and Josh are the experts. I had to learn from them.”

Labor Day is quite a change of pace for the director, whose previous work includes such quirky films as Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult. This time around, he’s taken a far more subtle approach by bringing to life a script (based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name) that places an emphasis on storytelling through the actors’ physical performances rather than on expansive dialogue or verbal exposition. By the time Adele and Frank begin to share and explore their feelings for one another, the audience has already seen the evolution of their relationship—even before the pair recognize what is happening to them.

Reitman’s trademark move of having one of his characters guide the story through voiceover narration is still present, this time in the form of adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) reflecting on the events surrounding Frank’s introduction into his and Adele’s life. He also employs a series of flashbacks that are inter-spliced throughout the film, telling parallel tales of what led Adele into her heavy reclusiveness, and the full story of why Frank was convicted to 18 years in prison. Along with the film’s main story, these three narratives intertwine to paint a larger and often harrowing portrait of the extreme actions that love and family can trigger in human beings.

While the film’s plot does require a bit of a leap of faith from its audience, Labor Day is a unique, intensely interesting character study that serves as a master class in acting. What truly carries the movie is Winslet and Brolin’s head-on portrayal of these two outcasts. This is what propels one of the most simultaneously unconventional, bold and romantic love stories of the year – including one of the most sensual pie-making scenes in contemporary cinema.

Both actors deliver powerhouse performances that make Labor Day a must-see film during an already crowded awards season. And while the movie may not make it on any “Best Picture” lists, its two leads certainly deserve to garner a lot of ballots for their astounding work come Oscar time (Winslet already received a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination for the film).

“I probably am more drawn to films that really delve deep into the human condition and relationships,” Winslet explained to The New York Times. “It’s playing those roles that you get to see how odd everyone is. I do love that. There’s no such thing as normal.”

Labor Day opens for limited release on December 27th and will expand to theaters nationwide on January 31, 2014.

Alex Nagorski About Alex Nagorski

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. After growing up in Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin, Alex now resides in New York City. A freelance arts blogger, he also works in Program Advertising at HBO. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.

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