Director: Lila Neugebauer
Writers: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, Elizabeth Sanders
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Causeway (2022) begins with a departure and ends with an arrival. In between, theatre director Lila Neugebauer’s first feature film, about a war veteran (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from a traumatic brain injury, is a quietly-devastating portrait of loneliness; of how some houses never become homes; of how some people choose to remain in the prisons they’ve constructed for themselves rather than risk being trapped anywhere else. Not that it articulates any of these sentiments out loud. This delicate, gradually unfolding gut-punch of a film is largely devoid of dramatic proclamations and teary speeches, relying instead on long, well-placed silences and quiet revelations. One of its most heartbreaking scenes unfolds without a single sound, with two characters conversing in sign language.
As Army engineer Lynsey (Lawrence) recuperates, much of the initial portions of the film focus on her point of view – a lingering shot of the ceiling cuts to her lying awake in bed staring at it, another of a ceramic mug is followed by her hand attempting to grasp it. The camera seems almost protective of her, resisting the impulse to close in on her expressions and instead framing her from behind at first, refusing to cut away to flashbacks of the accident.
Returning to the kind of sparse indie that launched her career, Lawrence does some of her finest work yet, conveying volumes through just the sunken angularity of her face. Each breakdown and moment of vulnerability is notable for how it avoids dramatisation and plays out with great restraint. It’s only fitting that a woman who repairs water systems for the Army and later gets a job cleaning pools has long figured out how to put up a dam between her and her emotions.
Neugebauer has a keen cinematic sense of loneliness, locating it in the sound of laughter and music coming from behind a closed door, through recurring shots of Lynsey staring vacantly into space, through the geography of a too-large house with a single inhabitant. The last one belongs to car mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry, who has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor,Male for his performance) who strikes up a friendship with Lynsey. If her grief has sent her fleeing across continents in search of some respite, his has padlocked him to the site of his trauma.
Through a series of frank, if muted conversations across New Orleans, two people who’ve spent years developing skill sets to fix broken objects allow themselves to acknowledge that they’re in need of some mending too, though the gently understated film frames this far less bluntly. A dry sarcasm girds their fledgling friendship in a movie so lowkey that the one massive blowout between the two of them registers as the sole false note.
The contours of any cinematic path to healing are predictable but Neugebauer retraces them with the tender understanding of someone who knows what a relief it is when life’s most trying roads lead back to home. Causeway doesn’t offer up any easy or glib answers by the end. Instead, it understands that the weight of some questions might seem crippling, but they’re easier borne with someone sharing the load.
Causeway will stream on Apple TV+ soon.