In “Labor Day,” a woman falls in love with the man who takes her hostage, but the movie goes out of its way to make that journey easy for her. He’s an escaped convict, but wouldn’t you want to escape prison, too? And he’s a murderer, except maybe he’s not really a murderer, just unfairly convicted. And sure, he holds her captive in her own home, but not for one minute do you ever think he’s going to hurt her, or her 12-year-old son.
She’s depressed and rarely leaves the house. So how else is she going to meet a good-looking guy, except in a hostage situation? And the son needs a father figure, someone to show him how to swing a bat and change a tire.
This is win-win for everybody, but it’s too win-win — a setup that short-circuits drama, that shoehorns a situation into a precooked formulation: He’s a real prisoner and she’s an emotional prisoner, and each offers the other the possibility of freedom.
Still, the situation has enough inherent drama and the performances enough truth that “Labor Day” maintains interest.
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Kate Winslet is Adele, a shy divorced mother for whom a trip to the grocery is a major excursion. She has lost all her confidence and most of her ability to face the world when she meets Frank (Josh Brolin), who, with suggested threats, makes his way into her car and then into her house. Outside there’s a manhunt, while inside Frank soon is making chili and baking peach pies.
Throughout, it’s as if the performances, grounded in reality, are in collision with the requirements of the story. Winslet brings a world of pain to Adele’s every utterance, just as Brolin brings the heavy aura of a tortured history to Frank. We believe he has been through hell and wants desperately to remain free and with this woman.
So why oh why, with a price on his head, do they keep forgetting to lock the front door? And why oh why, do they not pull down the shades?
“Labor Day” is a film of many faults. Yet even if we never fully believe in Adele and Frank, we end up caring about them, and that’s some kind of achievement.