The lonesome divorcee and the seductive vagabond are recurring characters in romance novels, but with “Labor Day,” director Jason Reitman turns a Nicholas Sparks scenario into an Alfred Hitchcock creep-show. Although the violence is implied and illusory, the twists and turns throughout this moody movie form a noose around our genre expectations.

Adele (Kate Winslet, doing what she does best) is the divorced, depressed mother of sensitive tween Henry (Gattlin Griffith). They live in a decrepit old house in small-town New Hampshire. So when hunky-but-bleeding stranger Frank (Josh Brolin, delivering his lines with cryptic diction) enlists Henry’s help at the local discount store, it’s the most momentous thing to happen to this fractured family since husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) ran off with his secretary.

Frank is an escaped prisoner, convicted of murdering his young wife many years earlier, but even as he barges into Adele’s home, he assures her that he is a wrongly accused man and will not harm her or Henry. Yet in adapting a novel by Joyce Maynard, director Reitman (“Up in the Air”) emphasizes Frank’s sexual dominance. The film has a thrumming, almost subliminally threatening soundtrack. And in the scene where Frank provides the pliant Adele with a potential alibi in case the cops come, gently tying her to a chair, the S&M subtext becomes overt.

The questions that this movie raises are strangely open-ended. Is Frank a forgivable answer to Adele’s prayers because he can fix a squeaky staircase, teach Henry how to hit a curveball and bake a peach pie? (The extended, eroticized, pie-baking scene is the most obvious nod toward the romance-novel demographic.)

These questions might be easier to answer if we learned more about Frank’s background, but the flashbacks to his crime are confusing and the story is narrated from Henry’s perspective (with Tobey Maguire voicing his older self).

Because the story is set in the ’80s and Henry is a blank slate of emotional neediness (photographed like an ivory doll), “Labor Day” evokes absent-father stories such as Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster “E.T.” This confounding film might be too roughly textured for mass consumption, but for audiences who aren’t bound by expectations, the labor of chewing it over will be rewarded.


What “Labor Day” • Three stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:51 • Content Thematic material, brief violence and sensuality

Joe Williams is the film critic of the Post-Dispatch and the author of the book "Hollywood Myths." Follow him on Twitter @joethecritic.

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.