Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is in pain. She is recovering from a traumatic brain injury after her vehicle was hit with a projectile in Afghanistan. Causeway observes as Lynsey returns home to New Orleans and undergoes an intensive healing process. She relearns how to use her body with the aid of a physiotherapist. There are moments of visible anguish as she slips and falls, reliving her traumatic experience each time her body fails her. Talking, too, is difficult as Lynsey remains shell-shocked. Opening her mouth leaves her vulnerable as she risks betraying whatever composure she grasps with her body. Lawrence’s introspective performance observes the layers of trauma that veterans endure when they return home unexpectedly, ripped from the frontlines, yet doubly burdened by the fear that they’ve failed in their duties and disappointed their loved ones.
James (Brian Tyree Henry) is also in pain. Marked by an absent limb, he wrestles with the grief of personal loss because of a terrible accident. When Lynsey and James collide, they find in one another a therapeutic ally.
Causeway unfolds episodically as Lynsey and James repair their physical and emotional scars. Little happens as scenes won’t go much further than letting the camera be a fly-on-the-wall as Lynsey sits silently. Lynsey’s wounds, however, open and reopen as she lives with her mother (Linda Emond) who has fresh cuts of her own. Drama inevitably follows, if somewhat pointlessly as Lynsey’s mother randomly disappears from the picture. She develops a surrogate family with James as they create a safe space to share their pain.
A Slice of Cake
Writer/ director Lila Neugebauer has a fine eye for character in this feature debut. She leans into her theatrical roots, favouring long takes that let the drama play out. On one hand, she knows the strength of her actors and gives them space to inhabit their characters. This move is smart, since Lawrence is very good here. Causeway invites Lawrence to return to the roots of her career with a simmering performance on par with her breakthrough work in The Burning Plain and Winter’s Bone. Henry, meanwhile, has far more volume to his dramatic presence. His performance admittedly has a level of self-awareness that clashes when the restraint of Lawrence’s turn, so Neugebauer could do more to balance the scales, even if James largely serves as a catalyst for Lynsey’s recovery.
Similarly, Neugebauer’s theatrical roots conflict in her realization of Lynsey’s pain. The camera never moves until Lynsey is ready to do the same. The metaphor of paralysis is novel, but it renders Causeway both narratively and aesthetically flat.
Moreover, Causeway treads similar terrain to the 2014 Jennifer Aniston awards vehicle Cake with its portrait of grief and healing, but also its somewhat staid effort to find a story to match the weight of its lead performance. Similarly, Lawrence’s performance finds great catharsis in a relatively bleak affair. Lynsey’s scene of reconciliation with her brother, played out entirely in sign language, is a moving window into this young woman and her family’s pain. Much like Aniston’s acclaimed turn in Cake, which makes a dud of a movie worth seeing thanks to one shattering feat of silent acting, Lawrence’s layered turn leads Causeway to a memorable final act. It’s just too bad the film itself is such a slog.