Dir: Lila Neugebauer. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Jayne Houdyshell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Harvard. 15, 94 minutes.
Causeway isn’t about the actor Jennifer Lawrence. But in its own strange way it serves as a metaphor for Lawrence herself. It’s about a young woman who blows up – albeit in a war rather than Hollywood – and then has to pick up the pieces. It’s Lawrence’s first proper starring role since 2018, when a run of largely disliked projects (the Chris Pratt space romance Passengers; the masterful-slash-loathed biblical allegory Mother!) collided with her enormous fame and sent her on a self-imposed career break. All that noise made it easy to forget how good she is at being quiet. In Causeway, director Lila Neugebauer lingers on her star’s tiny shifts in expression, her shrinking melancholy. We haven’t seen this side of Lawrence since her star-making role in the 2010 neo-western Winter’s Bone. It feels like a homecoming.
Lawrence is Lynsey, an engineer for the US military who is returned to her native New Orleans after barely surviving an explosion in Afghanistan. In between cleaning pools and playing a memory game to soothe the effects of a brain injury, she meets James (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), an equally haunted mechanic who fixes her mother’s car when it breaks down. They hang out. They smoke. They slowly disclose their respective traumas. Lynsey doesn’t quite know what to do with herself, but assumes she’ll need to return to her military job – whether it kills her or not.
That’s... about it. Causeway isn’t necessarily anti-plot. The script – co-credited to novelist Ottessa Moshfegh at her most uncharacteristically downbeat – cycles through a traditional three-act structure, complete with an inciting incident that triggers a last-minute threat to Lynsey and James’s blossoming friendship. But it’s otherwise devoid of frills, finding instead a gentle, understated rhythm where long-held conflicts simmer ambiguously rather than explode.
Neugebauer, a first-time feature director with a background in theatre, could have made her debut a lot more showy than it is (scenes set in Afghanistan were reportedly left on the cutting room floor), but smartly she cuts to the chase a lot of the time: Causeway has two incredibly gifted performers at its centre, and knows they’re who you want to see.
Lawrence is brilliant here – fatigued, anxious, wonderfully unaffected. Henry, meanwhile, is an ocean of bottled-up sadness. There is a scene about halfway through Causeway in which James talks about the accident that left him without a leg, but few specifics – or the horrid tangents it sprouted in its aftermath – are actually verbalised. Rather, Henry lends each hushed gap in James’s tale the feel of a sledgehammer.
More than anything, though, Causeway feels in conversation with its leading lady. Lawrence was so close to becoming the kind of famous that torches any pretence of transformation in an actor’s work; where you’re just watching a celebrity in a wig, or putting on an accent for effect. In that self-imposed hiatus since 2018’s pulpy spy thriller Red Sparrow – a role in last year’s divisive asteroid comedy Don’t Look Up notwithstanding – Lawrence seems to have found her footing again. Her performance marks a return to the kind of textured naturalism that won her so much acclaim in the first place; it gestures not only to her past but where she is likely headed next. As a movie, Causeway feels a little too slight to win awards kudos, and will likely end up a footnote in Lawrence’s career overall. But it might just be the most important movie she’ll ever make.
‘Causeway’ is in selected cinemas and can be streamed via Apple TV Plus from 4 September