Depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry are kidnapped from a small town New Hampshire department store by an escaped convict (Josh Brolin). His intense air of desperation and menace intimidates them into driving him to their home, where he promises that he will leave that night under cover of darkness. After their initial fear subsides, the virtually fatherless boy and the forlorn woman are drawn to the man, who is both masculine (he’s an excellent handyman) and nurturing (he’s an excellent cook). Via fragmentary flashbacks, the story of why he was imprisoned is slowly revealed as relationships between the three develop and shift over the course of a Labor Day bank holiday weekend.
Jason Reitman is a director drawn to make intelligent, character driven films, but he seemingly isn’t concerned with establishing a signature style or themes (one could watch his films back to back and not necessarily be aware they’re all one director’s work), but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Labor Day’s leads are excellent, with Winslet particularly sympathetic as the unhappy, severely withdrawn Adele, who appears pinched and in pain when first on screen before being revived and renewed by the presence of the never named convict. Brolin isn’t really doing anything here he hasn’t done before (menacing but sensitive), but he does it well.
Overall though the film lacks any real uncertainty or tension, and feels long at just under two hours. It’s difficult to accept that the boy and his mother would fall for this dangerous man so quickly, and the escapee’s decision to abandon his plan to get as far away as possible is also hard to swallow. Eliciting strong performances is probably Reitman’s greatest directorial strength, and it’s the performances that make this contrived melodrama worth watching.