Causeway streams on Apple TV+ on Nov. 4.
A film that works despite its aggressive plainness, Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway follows U.S. military technician Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), who returns to New Orleans from her Afghanistan deployment with a severe brain injury. While on the road to recovery (and seeking desperately to re-enlist), she crosses paths with a local mechanic, James (Brian Tyree Henry), with whom she forms an unlikely and uneasy friendship based on their mutually traumatic pasts.
Aesthetically, Causeway is simple — too simple at times — but its restrained approach yields clarity of performance, even if it lacks clarity of information. Its puzzle pieces take far too long to snap into place for something so straightforward: a character piece about reckoning with the past, and one that runs a mere 92 minutes at that. However, the result is Lawrence’s finest on-screen work in at least a decade. She bucks the overwrought and boisterous habits she formed with directors like David O. Russell (Joy, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) and recalls her more subdued, nuanced roles from years past, like in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — fittingly, her big awards-season breakout in 2010.
Written by Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, and Ottessa Moshfegh, the movie opens in the immediate aftermath of Lynsey’s return. She’s barely able to move, and requires the help of a professional caretaker, Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), an elderly woman who’s seen people in Lynsey’s condition before. However, their sweet dynamic as Lynsey re-learns to walk, speak, and brush her teeth ends up strangely perfunctory, since the timeline jumps ahead numerous times in quick succession, collapsing her recovery, though not enough that it feels like a prologue (let alone a montage). The film would be better served without this non-committal 20-minute section, or perhaps with a shorter version of it, since little of Lynsey’s arduous physical therapy ends up informing her eventual narrative, which doesn’t truly begin until she returns to her childhood home. However, these initial scenes afford Lawrence the chance to fully live in Lynsey’s skin. It’s like witnessing an actor’s process rather than a character’s journey, but what a process it is, as Lynsey’s stillness, silences, and indignities force Lawrence to look inward as she contemplates a future in which she may never feel complete.
Causeway is Neugebauer’s feature debut. She hails from the world of theater, and her camerawork has a sense of stillness reminiscent of the stage, but at first, this observational quality ends up more distancing than revealing. The onus falls on Lawrence’s physicality, to tell the story of how Lynsey feels as she re-enters the spaces in which she came of age. She erects conversational barriers between herself and her mother (Linda Emond) — a dynamic whose past complications are more teased and referenced than they are meaningfully explored — and she takes up a job as a pool cleaner, which she views as a temporary measure before returning to the Middle East. However, her path to doing so is largely backgrounded; it depends on the approval of her physician (Stephen McKinley Henderson), but her appointments are divided by lengthy stretches, during which there’s little sense of her working towards any physical or emotional objective in particular. Coupled with the lack of discernible storytelling stylizations — i.e. something to visually or aurally tether us to Lynsey’s perspective — the result is passivity, apart from the few moments Lawrence creates intrigue with her listless posture or expression, or even her mildly unsteady walk. The ground beneath her always feels uncertain, but it’s the film’s only real uncertainty when Lynsey moves back home.
However, this slowly begins to change once her truck breaks down and she crosses paths with James. Small favors soon become hangouts, which briefly becomes a will-they-won’t-they to which Lynsey quickly puts a stop, creating room for a blossoming friendship where these two guarded people slowly begin to reveal vulnerable parts of themselves. It’s here that Neugebauer’s restraint comes in handy. Henry’s performance is equally restrained, since James has long since buried his secrets and regrets beneath beer and a personable front (gosh, his laughter is infectious), but when it comes time to explore his home — and thus, his broken past — Neugebauer lets the walls and the little details speak for themselves, as both Lynsey and the camera absorb the carefully crafted environment and all its dramatic implications.
Their dynamic is by no means bubbly or effervescent, but they each come alive in their own way when they’re around one another, even if it’s for reasons as morbid as connectives with each other’s most traumatic moments, and the burdens they each carry. There is also, unfortunately, a scattered-ness to how this mutual understanding manifests — Lynsey gains a new perspective on her past and on her mother, but little of it is rooted in her time spent with James — and the more they reveal about themselves, the more the movie’s missed opportunities come to light.
There are only a handful of times when Causeway aesthetically embodies Lynsey’s point of view. One is specifically a moment of sudden distress, enhanced by jagged sounds, when she’s behind the wheel of her truck. Another introduces the possibility of her PTSD rearing its head by filming a simple joyride with a reduced shutter angle (resulting in a strobing effect, like the opening action scene of Saving Private Ryan). However, these flourishes are quickly forgotten despite the fact that both Lynsey and James’ respective traumas occurred inside road vehicles, a commonality that Causeway fails to consider even though they spend most of the movie driving around.
It's one of several threads left dangling in mid-air as Causeway lurches towards its hesitant conclusion, in which the outcome doesn’t really matter, since only hints of a story have unfolded. Lynsey’s confrontation of her past has the finesse of a superhero TV show — which is to say, it contains plainly spoken dialogue about trauma, and little else — but even its most abstract and representational elements are made tangible by Lawrence. Her performance isn’t just magnetic, but alchemic, creating textual gold from scenes that would otherwise be dull as lead, thanks to some of the most measured and alluring work of any actress this year. With every strained movement, and every hesitant interaction, Lynsey comes fully formed, even if the film around her rarely feels more than half-baked.
Source: IGN.com Causeway Review