Film Review – Causeway
After a decade of high-profile projects and big budget franchise work, seeing Jennifer Lawrence in a smaller character piece is a welcomed change of pace. Her performance in Causeway (2022) is a reminder that she is not just one of the biggest stars in the movie business, but one of its most talented. Lawrence taps into the same natural, organic skillset that was present way back in Winter’s Bone (2010), which propelled her into the spotlight. Here, she plays Lynsey, a U.Si9000. soldier who – after suffering a brain injury in Afghanistan – has returned to her New Orleans home to rest and recuperate. However, Lynsey feels the itch to go back to the military as quickly as possible, seeing her time back home as merely a stop gap.
Director Lila Neugebauer (with writers Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders), structures the narrative with a quiet, methodical approach. The “plot” is of little concern. Instead, the production focuses on the internal – the thoughts and feelings of characters who are adrift. Lynsey is no exception. The opening sequence, detailing her struggles to simply regain control of her body, is done with sensitivity. The editing (Robert Frazen, Lucian Johnston) and camerawork (Diego García) does not amplify these moments with dramatic flair. The process of Lynsey being able to walk, talk, and drive on her own is handled with care and subtlety – setting the tone for the rest of the film.
But just because Lynsey can get by without the need of constant supervision, does not make her well enough to return to active duty. That is where the heart of Causeway resides. Although Lynsey’s body returns, it’s what is happening inside that still lingers. The extreme circumstances of her injuries have left her mental state in a precarious position. The stress is compounded when we learn of Lynsey’s distant relationship with her mother (Linda Emond) and a childhood she would rather escape. To pass the time, Lynsey takes a job cleaning pools. In order to drive to her next gig, she takes her broken down truck to the local auto shop, where she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry). Out of empathy (and maybe curiosity), Lynsey and James strike up an unexpected friendship.
The idea that Lynsey would suddenly develop a connection with a stranger – even hitching a ride from him on the same day they meet – is a little farfetched. Luckily, Brian Tyree Henry is such a charismatic actor that any hesitancy there is gets washed away. As good as Lawrence is, Henry matches her (and even steals some scenes in his own right). He inhabits James with several emotional states. He can be charming and witty one moment, and then show all his vulnerabilities and regrets in the next. Henry is simply amazing here, pulling us in with pitch perfect delivery. The strongest scenes involve Lynsey and James sharing themselves with one another. They have both felt pain and loss, both physically and emotionally. When they are together, they are kindred spirits on the same wavelength. Lawrence and Henry have excellent on-screen chemistry, and in certain exchanges we get hints that their relationship might be more than they are letting on.
Causeway is ultimately about more than just Lynsey surviving her injuries and becoming friends with James. Thematically, the story is about confronting the ghosts of one’s past, about coming to terms with our sins, and healing our very souls. Lynsey spent her entire life trying to run away, but circumstances have brought her face to face with the person she once was. The same goes for James. In a way, his situation maybe worse. Where Lynsey had the ability to travel and go as far away from her mother as possible, James did not have that luxury. He had to sit and linger with his grief. His very home is a constant reminder of the darkness that surrounds him.
Although the performances are superb, the narrative itself is thin. At a brief ninety-two minutes, the story is made up of conversations strung together. Some viewers might grow tiresome watching Lynsey and James hash out their personal issues through most of the runtime. However, I found this to be the film’s biggest strength. In fact, when the writing and direction attempt to insert dramatic tension – specifically a late twist meant to put Lynsey and James’ friendship at risk – it feels disingenuous. For a story that has spent so much effort to exist in a grounded reality, this development is shoehorned and awkward. It was as though the invisible hands of the writers and director came down and interjected to keep us off balance. That plot point, as well as the ambiguous nature of its resolution, causes the narrative to stumble in its final stages.
Causeway is worth recommending for the strength of its central performances. Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry are both excellent in their respective parts. Seeing them work off one another is like watching two professional musicians playing in sync. This is a well-acted and mature movie, even when it feels a little slight.