Judge Gordon Sullivan thought Stockholm Syndrome was a fear of Swedish mysteries.
A second chance love story.
It can't be easy being a second-generation Hollywood filmmaker. People immediately want to write those directors off as benefiting from traditional Hollywood nepotism. The path to success through that difficulty seems to be not doing whatever your parents did. Sofia Coppola's five films to date have succeeded because she established her own voice, one that bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of Francis Ford Coppola's films. In a slightly different way, Jason Reitman has similarly tried to distance himself from his father (Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters, among many others). However, rather than trying to make films that are completely different from his father's famous comedies, Reitman has brought his own unique sensibility to several different kinds of funny movie, from Thank You For Smoking to Young Adult. With each new release, though, the drama has increased and the comedy gotten darker. It was only a matter of time before Reitman departed the comedy altogether. With Labor Day, he tackles his first romance film, with mixed results.
Facts of the Case
It's Labor Day 1987, and clinically depressed Adele (Kate Winslet, Titanic) is out grocery shopping with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith, Green Lantern) when they're picked up by Frank (Josh Brolin, W.). He's bleeding, but still convinces them to take him to their home, where he intends to lay low. After tying them up, we learn that Frank is an escaped convict, but after some bonding the mother/son combo fall a bit for Frank, and their lives are changed by this interaction.
A very important question haunts Labor Day from start to finish: are we supposed to take this seriously? If this is a romantic movie—and the trailers certain suggest that we should take it as such—then no, we can't take it seriously at all. We're meant to swallow that a mentally ill woman taking home a convict with whom she then falls in love is not only possible and probably, but a good thing, a romantic thing—and that her son, absent the father who left Henry and Adele in the lurch, latches onto Frank as a model of masculinity. We're supposed to take this as a good sign as well, since the whole film is narrated from future-Henry's perspective (and given extra weight by being read by Tobey McGuire).
Of course, it's a trope in romance films that women must fall in love with the most unsuitable guy so that she can change him, sand off the rough edges, and thereby prove her worth as a woman. I get that. The situation in Labor Day is so ridiculous, so improbable, that it's impossible to take the interactions between the characters seriously. We have a name for what happens when you fall in love with your kidnapper (Stockholm Syndrome), and there's nothing romantic about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The real tragedy is that there's an amazing film lurking in the confines of Labor Day. If, instead of trying to portray the relationship between Adele and Frank as a romantic one, complete with sweltering atmosphere and the erotically charged confines of the house, the film had tried to show what might actually happen if a mentally ill woman fell for her kidnapper, we might have had an interesting drama. Instead, Labor Day asks us to take the Adele/Frank relationship at face value, and that's just absurd. The same thing goes between Frank and Henry. Of course, a young boy with no father figure would gravitate towards the tough convict, but the fact that the film seems to endorse their relationship just doesn't convince. The film never steps back from the claustrophobic small town it tries so hard to evoke to see that it's not quite right.
Even more importantly, if the film didn't waste its time trying to convince us a romantic relationship is perfectly natural (even desirable) between a kidnapper and his victim, it would have more time to devote to the more enticing them of being haunted by the past. This is a film that hits viewers over the head with small-town signifiers, from the nostalgic heat of Labor Day to the peach pie that the pseudo-family dines on, and wants to say something about being unable to escape the past. That's a much more compelling message than "Fall in love with your kidnapper, it's cool."
It all almost works for two very good reasons. The first is the cast. Josh Brolin is charming and dangerous in just the right combination to be riveting on screen; the fact that he's also attractive in a "man's man" kind of way certainly doesn't hurt. Kate Winslet actually sells the romantic side of her character, keeping her vulnerability in check while making us believe it's okay to fall in love with the guy who kidnaps you. Gattlin Griffen is the pawn positioned between them, and he does a surprisingly believable transformation from confused youth to confident young man as the film progresses.
Reitman's eye is the film's second major weapon. The film is gorgeous from first frame to last, and Reitman sells not only the period setting, he does so without resorting to cliché tricks to get viewers involved in his world. The visual choices that help sell the atmosphere—the colors, especially—help sell the sweltering situation both inside Adele's house and outside with those looking for Frank.
Labor Day (Blu-ray) is also solid. The film's 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is especially good Detail is high throughout, with plenty of pleasing detail in closeups. Colors are well-saturated, really selling the heat of Labor Day. Black levels are also consistent and deep, with no compression artifacts to speak of. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly good. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds are used to establish the aura of the house and the small town.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Reitman, producer Jason Blumenfeld, and cinematographer Eric Steelburg. The trio are talkative throughout, with much of their time spent discussing more technical details. We also get a 30-minute making-of featurette and 10 minutes of deleted scenes. DVD and Ultraviolet digital copies are also available.
Because of the freedom he gives his performers, Labor Day will make an excellent calling card should Jason Reitman decide to make a full-blown drama. Sadly, the ridiculous premise of uniting kidnapper and kidnapped in a love relationship sinks Labor Day when it might otherwise have been an interesting film about loss and escaping the past. It's worth a rental for romance fans who can suspend their disbelief (or find kidnapping incredibly romantic…) and fans of the actors, who put on a great show.
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