Jason Reitman’s Labor Day may be the most quietly surreal film of the year. Sure, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess flirted with varying degrees of narrative experimentation but no film in recent memory is as thoroughly, determinedly nonsensical, all while keeping a straight face, as this one. More than a month after seeing it, its inscrutable weirdness has not left me. Its commitment to bizarreness remains in the back of my mind like a recurring dream that may be an actual memory. I can’t think of many comparable movie-going experiences but, unfortunately, I don’t believe this reaction is the one Reitman expected or wanted.
Despite the many recognizable faces in the cast, the film’s lead is a young boy named Henry, played by relative unknown Gattlin Griffith. Henry lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressive agoraphobic who ventures into town once a month to replenish supplies. On one of these trips with Henry in tow, they encounter an escaped convict at the general store. I’m pretty sure it’s just a Kmart but in the movie’s alternate universe version of idyllic Americana, it would probably be referred to as the general store. The fugitive, Frank (Josh Brolin), threatens to harm Henry if Adele doesn’t let him hole up at their house. Obviously, this is the moment she begins to fall in love with him. The rest of the film unfolds over the long weekend of the titular holiday while Adele and Henry attempt to keep Frank hidden from neighbors, family members and authorities for their own safety and because they’re beginning to like him so much. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking this is some kind of Desperate Hours-style thriller. There is literally not one second that could be described as thrilling. In fact, don’t think you have any part of Labor Day at all figured out before you watch it. You’ll only set yourself up for a shock when you learn just how much of the film is concerned with, say, the process of pie-making or discussions about incest. Oh and don’t forget about the dead babies. There are way more dead babies in this movie than you’d think.
Given the unconventional tone of the film, it’s unfortunate that Winslet or Brolin aren’t playing the real leads. Both are able to maintain their characters’ consistency through the thicket of puzzling choices they make. But Griffith, sadly, is just not very good. There’s a thinness to his performance that makes him seem unaffected by all that is going on in his home. In a way, that makes him a pitiably fitting audience surrogate, rapt but unmoved by the unfolding events. Supporting turns by Clark Gregg, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek and, briefly, J.K. Simmons are all solid but given that they are necessarily no more than minor intrusions into the otherwise hermetic house, their impact on the film is fleeting.
Perhaps the only clue that Labor Day’s pervasive oddness is intentional comes from Eric Steelberg’s conspicuously beautiful cinematography. In Reitman’s most recent and best film, Young Adult, Steelberg managed a sharpened mundaneness, making the small town seem realistically unremarkable while remaining compelling and watchable. Here, though, warm light is ladled onto everything like honey. Nearly every shot looks like the picture for September on a wall calendar. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for summer giving way to autumn but with a pointedness that the real world never achieves. In short, it’s more like a memory than a real-time event. That fits since the film is narrated by an older Henry (Tobey Maguire), though the voice-over element repeatedly disappears just long enough to surprise you when it comes back.
If there’s a satisfying explanation for why Reitman made Labor Day the way he did, it lies in that memory/dream area. Perhaps Henry is meant to be a less reliable narrator than he seems. Perhaps, being so young, he misunderstood what was happening. Perhaps, for instance, his mother was terrified when this hulking, bleeding criminal tied her to a chair and was not, as the film shows, almost swooning in her compliance. That must be it, really. There’s no other explanation for why characters react placidly to – or even welcome – dangerous and violent circumstances. That can be the only reason why, when the neighbor slaps her disabled child in the face, everyone just watches like this is Eyes Wide Shut and they’re wearing masks.
Moments like that make Labor Day – despite its languid pace – far from boring. It’s a curious and interesting departure for Reitman but that doesn’t make it a successful film. Still, like a house afire in the middle of the night, it’s difficult not to watch.