Save for a clumsy third-act, Causeway works well as an examination of trying to live in the present while reeling from trauma in the past.
We’re all living in the looming shadows of our past. The actions or mistakes we undertake today shape our tomorrow. It’s as true for the poorest pauper as it is for the mightiest king, and Causeway protagonist Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is no exception. Formerly deployed to the Middle East as a soldier, she’s come home to New Orleans after suffering a brain injury. The ensuing movie’s emphasis on coping with the long-term effects of trauma is quietly established through Causeway beginning not with a grisly accident overseas, but rather with a shell-shocked Lynsey waiting for a taxi in America.
As a result of her injuries, Lynsey has had to undergo physical therapy, and continues to cope with newfound difficulties in her day-to-day life, such as struggling to hold objects. Being trapped back in New Orleans with her mom, Gloria (Linda Emond), is a quiet nightmare, even if a newfound friendship with mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry) has provided some moments of joy. Lynsey just wants to get back out there to the Middle East and resume her life as a soldier as if nothing ever happened. But, as she begins to discover, learning to live with these kinds of injuries and trauma is not an overnight experience.
Brought to life by director Lila Neugebauer and a screenplay penned by Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, and Ottessa Moshfegh, Causeway is a quiet drama that often takes on an observational quality in its subdued filmmaking. Much of this movie’s screentime is dedicated to watching Lynsey navigate her temporary job cleaning pools, or her and James chilling together in various hangout spots in New Orleans. Though a massive life-changing event spurs its plot into motion, Causeway is a story all about the tiny moments of existence.
This quiet direction for the story is, more often than not, an appropriate fit for this character and her world. It’s a welcome sight to see a movie about a soldier dealing with trauma and other psychological issues that isn’t a melodrama constantly lingering on extreme depictions of distress. This isn’t misery porn, by any stretch of the imagination, and that allows Lynsey to feel fleshed-out and alive as a character. It also makes the instances where she does have problems navigating everyday life, such as her sudden inability to hold a snow cone, all the more resonant. These issues feel appropriately weighty since they’re not the only element defining Causeway.
The less-is-more approach also functions nicely in the visual terms that communicate Lynsey’s lingering resentment about being back in her childhood home. While the exterior locales of New Orleans are realized with plenty of bright colors, Lynsey’s domicile is primarily coated in dark and ominous shadows. Streaks of outdoor light seem as bright as the sun within this home caught in the darkness of the past. While much of Causeway adheres to naturalistic qualities in its cinematography, the slightly more stylized use of lighting here is a vivid way to communicate Lynsey’s interior moodiness.
While these memorable touches capture one’s attention, the two lead performances of Causeway sustain your interest. In her first indie film performance in years, Jennifer Lawrence proves she hasn’t missed a beat in playing quieter souls. The dialogue-free stretches of Causeway allow Lawrence a chance to excel in her body language and facial expressions, while the imperfect details in her line deliveries nicely reminds the viewer that Lynsey is a flesh-and-blood human. As for Brian Tyree Henry, he delivers yet another knockout role here that, much like his unforgettable work in If Beale Street Could Talk, makes great use of his gift for long stares communicating years of bottled-up anguish.
While the performances in Causeway are superb, the film is, unfortunately, less than the sum of its best parts. Most fatal among its shortcomings is the screenplay’s tendency in the final 30 minutes to embrace more conventional forms of drama. The dynamics between characters suddenly become as fractured as you’d expect from a typical movie heading into its third act. A notable aspect of Lynsey’s psychological struggles also awkwardly come back to the forefront of the narrative, despite being absent from the rest of Causeway beyond its opening scenes. Suddenly, Lynsey’s interior turmoil is being used to adhere to narrative conventions rather than being explored in a naturalistic manner.
Causeway has worked so well up to this point just being about people talking on a park bench after dark, or strained interactions between Lynsey and Dr. Lucas (Stephen McKinley Henderson). This story has proven so interesting because it’s about humans navigating life with trauma quietly hanging over their heads like a foreboding raincloud. Adhering to conventional narrative standards and using Lynsey’s post-trauma psychological issues to generate sudden bursts of conflict, it all feels too mechanical.
Combining all that with an awkward resolution of a key character arc for Lynsey off-screen and Causeway undeniably ends on a sour note. Before that, though, the emphasis on subtlety and two great lead performances does make for a compelling, if not transcendent, piece of filmmaking. The production functions best in its quiet moments when Lawrence and Henry can capably portray people grappling with how to carve out a fulfilling existence in the shadows of traumatic pasts. We’re all molded by the events of yesterday, but as Causeway shows, the universality of that experience doesn’t make it any easier to endure.
Causeway premieres on Apple TV+ November 3rd.