One of the most fascinating things about Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” is how the director constructs the film to unfold patiently and instep with Jennifer Lawrence’s Lynsey’s slow recovery and Brian Tyree Henry’s James and his journey through personal loss. The details of each character’s pain unfold with a profundity that is quite effective.
Lynsey worked for the United States Army Core of Engineers and has returned from Afghanistan with a serious brain injury and PTSD. We learn that Lynsey’s vehicle was hit with an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device). The Army has sent her back to New Orleans (her hometown) to recover.
As the film opens, Lynsey is in the care of a social worker (Jayne Houdyshell) who, through a kind patience, helps her with her cognitive skills. Neugebaue keeps these scenes quiet and uses minimal dialogue, as Lynsey finds it hard to process her thoughts and connect with her nurse. After almost dying overseas (when her story is later revealed, it is terrifying), human interaction is beyond difficult.
As the film moves Lynsey back to her mother’s house, we see how this disconnect is not just from her accident. There is a deep-rooted pain, as we see Gloria’s mother (Linda Emond) is neglectful and self-serving and suffering from a drinking problem. Mom “forgets” to pick her daughter up from the bus station and brings men home late at night, blasting music into the wee hours even though she understands her daughter has suffered a trauma.
Added to this mess, Lynsey has a brother who has drug issues and has landed himself in prison. The two siblings have only one moment together that is one of the film’s most touching.
As Lynsey’s truck punks out, she takes it to a garage and meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a nice guy with a prosthetic leg, a sweet disposition, and a past colored with tragedy and pain.
The already interesting film reaches even higher emoticons heights once these two souls meet.
In the wrong hands, this is where the film could have fallen prey to clichés and unbelievable character arcs.
Written by Otessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders, Lynsey and James are allowed to be real people and act accordingly. People in pain (both physical and emotional) aren’t always the best in moving through life. These two broken souls find an organic friendship.
There is no ill-advised hackneyed romance. This would have betrayed the smartly designed characters. Lynsey lets him know she doesn’t date men. James reacts matter of fact to the news. Henry sells this moment with natural skill. James isn’t crushed by the revelation, nor does he make a big deal of it. This is a lonely man who is content with simply connecting with another person.
Lawrence and Henry have never been better. In their respective careers, the actors have continued to impress, both proving they are two of the finest working today.
Together, their emotional grasp on the material is mesmerizing. Both Lynsey and James are displaced souls. The two have many conversations that reveal layers of guilt and pain and regret. There are no moments of histrionics, as the quiet moments are allowed to breathe. Between these two, there are mountains of emotion to be found within the silences.
As the two sit together and discuss their lives, I was reminded of the sharp, naturalistic emotions found in Alex Lehmann’s 2016 film “Blue Jay”. In that picture, Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass had 90 minutes of conversation that was quite authentic and emotional. The characters in Lehmann’s film were broken, as are Lynsey and James. Both films are unique in their honest portrayals of pain and regret.
For “Causeway’s” exceptional screenplay, it is not necessary to resort to theatrical tantrums. The director has faith in the text and her two leads. Lawrence and Henry are gripping in every beat, giving what could be the best performances of their respective careers.
As their bond strengthens, the film’s gaze sharpens. Production designer Jack Fisk beautifully captures the auras of a hot New Orleans summer and the loneliness of Lynsey and James’ worlds. Fisk uses the natural surroundings to great effect while bringing out the emotional numbness of the two main characters.
Director Neugebaue tells the story of Lynsey and James with supreme care. The metaphors are subtle, as her filmmaking style stays out of the way to allow her lead actors a wide canvas on which to explore and create.
In today’s lackluster American cinema, it is rare to care about characters while they are on screen, let alone once the film has ended.
By the finale, I cared deeply for these two and wanted to stay with Lynsey and James to discover where their lives go from here. Perhaps they moved in together to help one another emotionally. As James tells Lynsey early on, “It would be nice to have coffee with someone in the morning.” I hope this came to fruition.
From the beautiful screenplay to its subtle direction to the award-worthy performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Bryan Tyree Henry, “Causeway” is one of the most welcome surprises of 2022.
Written by Otessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, & Elizabeth Sanders
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry
R, 92 Minutes, A24/Excellent Cadavor