Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway is a picture that succeeds despite its uncompromising plainness. It centers on American military technician Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), who suffers from catastrophic brain damage and returns to New Orleans after serving in Afghanistan. She meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a local mechanic, while on the road to recovery (and urgently trying to re-enlist), with whom she develops an unexpected and awkward bond based on their shared traumatic pasts.
Causeway is not about Jennifer Lawrence. It also represents Lawrence in a unique way. Instead of Hollywood, a young woman blows up in it in war and must pick up the bits. Passengers, starring Chris Pratt, and Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence, forced her to take a career break in 2018. Lawrence’s first major role since then. With all that noise, she was easy to forget. Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway focuses on her star’s gradual sadness and facial changes. Lawrence hasn’t shown this side since her breakout role in Winter’s Bone. Homecoming.
Lawrence is Lynsey, a US military engineer who has just barely survived an explosion in Afghanistan and has now returned to her native New Orleans. She meets James (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a similarly tormented mechanic who fixes her mother’s car when it breaks down, in between cleaning pools and playing a memory game to ease the consequences of a brain injury. They gradually reveal their individual traumas. Lynsey is unsure of what to do with herself but knows she must go back to her military position, no matter the cost.
That’s pretty much it. Causeway isn’t always opposed to plots. The script, co-credited to novelist Ottessa Moshfegh at her most typically dejected, has a traditional three-act format and includes an incident that serves as the catalyst for a last-minute threat to the budding bond between Lynsey and James. But other than that, it lacks flourishes and instead settles into a soft, subtle rhythm where old conflicts simmer ambiguously rather than erupt.
Neugebauer, a first-time feature director with a theatre background, could have made her debut a lot more showy than it is (scenes set in Afghanistan reportedly weren’t used), but she often cuts to the chase: Causeway has two extraordinarily talented performers at its center and knows they’re who you want to see.
Lawrence is excellent in this scene; he is worn out and worried, yet amazingly unfazed. Henry, on the other hand, is a sea of bottled grief. About halfway through Causeway, there is a moment where James talks about the event that caused him to lose his leg, although few specifics or the horrible digressions it caused are really mentioned. Instead, Henry gives each quiet space in James’s story the impression of a sledgehammer.
Causeway’s main actress is very talkative. Lawrence was so close to being famous, which would have shattered any pretense of change in an actor’s performance. Since the 2018 pulpy spy thriller Red Sparrow, Lawrence has taken a self-imposed hiatus and appears to have recovered. Her performance returns to the nuanced naturalism that earned her plaudits and references to her past and future. Causeway is a disappointing film that won’t earn Lawrence much acclaim. It may be her most important film.
“Causeway” is playing in some theatres and will be available for streaming on Apple TV Plus starting on September 4th.