At the time of her new film’s release, it’ll have been close to a year since audiences will have seen actor Jennifer Lawrence at work. Last year’s Don’t Look Up (2021) certainly divided audiences and critics, some marveling at its satire for how accurate its portrayal of reality is, while others decried it for the same reason. Lawrence’s performance is one of the stand-outs of the project, which is saying something considering the A-List talent featured in Adam McKay’s dramedy, yet with everything going on in it, there’s little chance for her to shine. All of this changes with Lila Neugebauer’s (Maid) Causeway, a character-focused drama which offers Lawrence room to remind audiences of her dramatic chops. In partnership with the always fantastic Brian Tyree Henry (Bullet Train; Widows), the duo captivate for 93 minutes in a quiet, often stoic, character-driven piece that reflects on purpose and family in the wake of trauma.
Surviving an IED attack during her service in Afghanistan is just the start of a long road for discharged military officer Lynsey (Lawrence). First, there’s the initial healing from her traumatic brain injury. Then, the start of physical therapy. And then the coming home. Each of these steps is particularly difficult for Lynsey, but none moreso than moving back in with her mother, Gloria (Linda Emond). As Lyndsey works to improve her physical conditioning so that she can return to active duty, she finds psychological support through a job cleaning pools and the incidental friendship she strikes up with local mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry).
Causeway is the type of small, narrowly-focused drama that isn’t likely to connect with wide audiences. The stakes are small, everything is entirely character-driven, and the resolution of the tale may result in some dissatisfaction due to its normalcy. There are no big moving speeches, no grand gestures, and no heroes. Rather, the script from Ottessa Moshfegh (Eileen), Luke Goebel (Eileen), and first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Sanders focuses on the fluidity and irrationality of life. This is made concrete through the physical and metaphorical presence of water from start to conclusion. Lynsey, herself, is a member of the Army Corps of Engineers specializing in water systems, she uses the Causeway (an enormous bridge that traverses Lake Pontchartrain) to get to New Orleans, and she gets a job cleaning pools. The score from Alex Somers (Together Together; Honey Boy; Captain Fantastic) is gentle with subtle vibrations, making one feel like they are floating, so that even away from water, the audience can still feel its presence. Diego Garcia’s (Wildlife) cinematography smoothly shifts from a soft wider focus to capture all the space and characters within its frame to an intense tight close-up where everything outside the rim of clarity is almost nebulous, as though floating beyond horizon. Water gives life and takes it away, requiring gentleness, awareness, and balance to keep one safe within it. One must also learn to swim with the current, for, against it, one tires quickly and may find themselves submerged. Causeway isn’t all metaphors, but one can’t help to think of them in the enduring silences or the shifts between idle chitchat and soul-bearing truths.
Making the metaphors real are performances from two actors who appear to dedicate 100% of themselves no matter the character they play. Not in a “don’t break character” unhealthy method way, but in that the performers devote themselves to removing who they are off set and become these new people. Lawrence earned her clout from a string of drama-centric performances before she was The Girl on Fire and Causeway is nothing less than a return to form. For his part, Henry matches Lawrence beat-for-beat, never falling into the trap that Causeway teeters toward regarding male-female relationships in films of this type, bringing a grace and sense of stature to a character who could just as easily be broken by what he’s endured. Especially in a film whose two leads are recovering from their own physical traumas, there’s a chance that either the script or the performance would play into a trope about a character with disability. Here, neither Lawrence nor Henry present individuals who are reduced, but as individuals who have a past. This affords Lawrence the opportunity to dig into her character-centric roots, portraying a person of great complexity struggling to find purpose in a space she never wanted to return to. Likewise, it allows Henry to present an individual who is more than one part of themselves, one painful moment in their history.
It’s fantastic to see Lawrence working on smaller projects like this one. It’s not that she’s not entertaining as a hero or comedian, but this is where her strength as a performer really lies. She all but disappears into the performance physically, her often large on-screen energy diminished into a personage where the ordinary task of driving for someone born able-bodied is crushed through the experience of it. She also delivers a hell of a monologue early on (one reminiscent of, but not in the same tone or tenor of Rebecca Hall’s in Resurrection (2022)) that Neugebauer never strays from; holding onto Lawrence as Lynsey shares her truth without flinching from it. Of course, it’s hard to stay focused on her when Henry shares the screen with her, his natural magnetism and gift for physical/vocal delivery being so targeted, so on point, that one can’t help but feel charmed and drawn in. His James possesses a story dissimilar in the details from Lynsey’s yet Henry’s performance makes it feel just as weighted and as personal as hers. Any other actor would struggle to keep up with Lawrence, yet Henry does it with barely a raised word; his presence on screen being the thing which makes the audience lean in just a bit more than when Lawrence appears.
As someone who doesn’t mind reading between the lines or searching subtext for meaning, Causeway’s quietness is almost too much for the story it seeks to tell, especially in the case of the familial dynamics which serve as the source of Lynsey’s reluctance to come home. The audience is given just enough from the dialogue and character performances to form an interpretation of the strife and struggle, yet one could easily grow parched trying to discern the truth. Edmon plays Gloria with a certain aloofness that implies someone ill-equipped to be a mother, yet determined to try. This would be laudable if not for the character’s other faults, except we only get inference of them and therefore our opinion is colored by Lynsey’s opaque-perspective. This often comes across as the script trying to side-step dramatic convention, but, in doing so, it leaves material out there that would strengthen the conclusion of the film. Similarly, in regards to Lynsey’s other living relatives and their roles in her current psychological feelings toward home, there’s not enough provided concretely resulting in a particularly powerful scene (though evocative) packing a much subtler wallop than was likely intended.
By and large, Causeway is a film that doesn’t tread water, it dives deeply, the solace of the current offering simultaneous comfort and conflict, but whose deference to the quiet doesn’t so much churn the audience up as push them along. This makes for an engaging watch, but not nearly as compelling as the performances would make them. Surprisingly, this fact doesn’t diminish the experience in part to the strength of the leads, the supporting players, and that almost hypnotic score.
In select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ November 4th, 2022.
For more information, head to either A24 or Apple TV+‘s official Causeway webpages.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming
Leave a Reply