In many of film’s greatest stories, there is an overpowering sense of inevitability; that no matter how hard our protagonists struggle to escape or transcend their situation, their outcome has already been decided long before the credits begin to roll. Such is the case with Jason Reitman’s latest feature Labor Day, adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name and starring Josh Brolin as Frank, Kate Winslet as Adele and young Gattlin Griffith as Henry. The film – which centers around a single mother, her son and the escaped convict who “imprisons” them in their house over the course of a Labor Day weekend – is a true evolution of all of Reitman’s previous skill sets, and marks him as a filmmaker who won’t be so easily pegged going forward.
Labor Day is filled with outstanding performances by all three leads, and Reitman does a magnificent job of balancing good-heartededness with an overwhelming feeling of dread. Winslet’s Adele in particular is a powder-cake of nervous tension, clearly suffering from past trauma and teetering on the edge of letting it consume her completely. It’s not that these characters seem doomed, per se – they’re just trapped. They’re trapped by their pasts, trapped by their presents and trapped in a variety of literal other ways, too. And it isn’t just our imprisoned family who fits the bill, either; Brolin’s Frank is every bit as complex, nuanced and isolated as our heroes are, and in more ways than just on the surface. Revelations from both parties expose dark, tragic pasts through which they share common ground.
The pacing is perfect, particularly in the first act. The sense of uneasiness and absolute fear is palpable once Frank enters our heroes’ home; something which happens incredibly fast, to the script’s credit. There’s a distinct feeling that anything could happen – and whatever it is, it’s probably not going to be good. It’s as pitch-perfect a setup as one could hope to have for a story, and Reitman knows it. In a departure for the filmmaker, he makes use of extremely ambient, moody and emotionally charged music (composed by frequent collaborator Rolfe Kent), and stylistically ups the ante when it comes to cinematography. The film is shot with a very timeless quality, particularly in the many flashback sequences, all of which are dazzlingly filmed.
Notably, the movie is very still. In what is probably Reitman’s most obvious departure from his previous works, Labor Day does a lot with very little: information is conveyed silently, through gestures, glances and composition. By the filmmaker’s own admission, he has, in the past, heavily relied on characters who talk a lot – in fact, many of his protagonists use words (both orally and written) for a living. That is most certainly not the case here. The film’s most exquisite moments occur in near-silence: a head on the shoulder here, a quiet embrace there. It shows tremendous growth for Reitman as a director, and springs him several steps forward towards the pantheon of contemporary filmmakers.
Labor Day is something very different for Jason Reitman; a side of him we’ve yet to see. Some might argue (myself included) that it is an even superior side to the one we already know and love. Either way, it demonstrates his versatility as a director. An emotional powerhouse, the film is a tour-de-force of simple, elegant filmmaking, and one of the highlight’s of this year’s festival.