Depressed single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) offer a wounded, fearsome man named Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) a ride. As police search the town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn Chambers' true story as their options become increasingly limited.
There's an inventiveness in 'Labor Day' that's entirely refreshing. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Jason Reitman ('Juno') has created an inventive mesh of genres. It's not just another film that confronts the idea of a home invasion. It isn't interested in car chases, tense standoffs, and gunplay, like most home invasion thrillers are. There's a much deeper story to be explored here. A character study of a broken family. A mysterious and threatening man (Josh Brolin), a homemaker with debilitating depression (Kate Winslet), and the resourceful son (Gattlin Griffith) that glues the narrative together.
Adele (Winslet), is a woman tortured by her past. The depression she visually writhes around in is palpable. Winslet, always adept at giving the best soggy-eyed melodramatic heroine performances, doesn't disappoint here. She's constantly on edge. Always moments away from either hysteria or tears; probably both. Dealing with a divorce – one of the movie's many secrets it keeps close to its chest, only revealing bits and pieces until the time is right – Adele simply finds it difficult to function in everyday life. Her son, Henry (Griffith) is the one taking care of her. Trying to extract her from this gloomy cloud of existential worry and dread she's so willing to slog around in.
One day, while at the local supermarket, Adele and Henry run into Frank (Brolin). The moment he appears on screen, sweaty and alarmed, things become uneasy. Frank is visibly hurt, and appears to be running from someone. He confronts Henry and asks for a ride home. Henry leads Frank to his mom. After that there's nothing either of them can do. He's intimidating and scary. They're outmatched. Against their will, a ride home is provided.
Reitman who has made his name with quirky dramadies like 'Juno' and 'Young Adult' shows a completely different side here. He seems at ease directing the substantial tension that comes along with this story. Most of his directorial choices are spot-on, adding suspense and gravitas to each scene. There's an unnerving, unseen pressure constantly building. The score is expertly crafted to continuously deliver an anxious feeling. The way he reveals backstories piecemeal keeps us wondering what exactly is going on.
By slowly building the characters, and adding more and more strain to the situation allows Reitman to really stretch them. That's the movie's real power. Its ability to develop its characters without a whole lot of explained exposition. We're left to our own devices if we can figure it out or not.
'Labor Day isn't without flaws though. It features an ending that nearly succeeds in undercutting everything the movie did so well. An ending which borders on the mushiest, most groan-inducing Nicholas Sparks' endings. Honestly, the end is quite a letdown. As much as I loved most of the movie, yes even the eternally controversial pie scene, that ending really shirks its momentum.
It's hard not to admire most of this film though. Sappy endings aside, Reitman never overplays his hand. He's never revealing too much about these characters that nothing's a mystery anymore. There's always room for doubt. There's a humanism here that is rare in film. Some may call it corny or laughable, I thought many moments were sweet. Along with the movie's inherent sweetness, there's also this bubbling intensity that can't be ignored. Not too many movies build suspense as intricately as this one. It's those few missteps at the end that are really holding it back.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Labor Day' comes to Blu-ray from Paramount in a combo pack. There's a 50GB Blu-ray, a DVD, and a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. Everything is packed in a standard keepcase, completely with slipcover, and a $10 off coupon to 1-800-Flowers for Mother's Day.
'Labor Day' sports a video presentation that you'd expect from a recently filmed Reitman film. Its 1080p visuals are deep, and rich. The warm colors of the countryside are captured and reproduced with precision. There's very strong detail on display here, also.
The detail, whether it be individual blades of grass, tears, or the texture of aged wood, is phenomenal. There's nothing amiss about how striking the detail is. It's extremely clear, in every scene. Great definition, strong lines, and well delineated shadows. No crushing was found anywhere. I didn't notice any banding or aliasing either. It lacks the big-time special effects of large budget movies, but that doesn't mean this isn't every bit as demo-worthy as those.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a fitting companion to the video. There's a nuanced feel about it. I love Rolfe Kent's eerie score. Here it fills up the soundfield. It's every bit as foreboding and enveloping as I remember it being in theaters.
Dialogue, while quiet most of the time, is nonetheless intelligible all of the time. Most of the movie is front-and-center with whispered conversations. Henry does here a few conversations from the other room which are great examples of the precise directionality on display. Rear channels harbor a lot of great nuance. The cicadas of the countryside are always chirping. The ambient sound of where they live is lively to say the least. With LFE doing its part during intense scenes, and a hiccup-free presentation, 'Labor Day' has one of the better low-profile audio mixes I've heard in a while.
'Labor Day' got unfairly criticized as far as I'm concerned. The "pie scene" was singled out and taken out of context. Within the context of the film it’s a complicated dance of tension and sweetness. Much of this film is complex and intriguing. The ending really pulls the rug out though, which is too bad. Though it's still recommended with such high video and audio scores.