‘Causeway’ Review: Jennifer Lawrence, as a U.S. Army Soldier, Goes Back to Her Indie Roots in a Downbeat Tale of Trauma and Recovery

“Causeway,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as a U.S. Army soldier recovering from injuries that are physical, mental, and spiritual, is the furthest thing from a genre film. Yet it belongs to what I’ve almost come to think of as a genre: the slow-burn non-verbal indie gloomfest. In saying that, I don’t mean to make light of the subject. Lawrence plays Lynsey, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who returns from Afghanistan after riding in a vehicle that was struck by a bomb, which caused her to have a cerebral hemorrhage. At the start, she’s seated in a wheelchair, waiting for the home health-care worker (Jayne Houdyshell) who’s going to look after her as she undergoes rehab. Tentatively, Lynsey starts to walk, but for a while she struggles to bathe, drive, remember things. The brain injury has smashed and weakened her; she’s a person in fragments.

The director, Lila Neugebauer, establishes a mood of despairing reticence, framing Lynsey in scenes where she doesn’t do or say much, because she can’t. Before long, though, she starts to recover. She gains strength, the color comes back in her face, and the film lets us know that her brain, though frazzled, is working fine. Yet the mood persists. (Her spirit remains broken.) “Causeway” is set in Lynsey’s hometown of New Orleans, and after she arrives at her mother’s house to continue her recovery, she’s resting in the bedroom when the mom, Gloria (Linda Emond), walks in and sees her for the first time. They talk about why she’s there a few days early. And that’s the whole conversation. Not one “So how are you feeling?” Is Gloria an insensitive monster parent? No, as we get to know her, she seems well-attuned enough to her daughter’s well-being. So why wouldn’t she even inquire about how she was?

Because that would break the monosyllabic downer spell. There’s a certain kind of independent film that’s still mirroring the model of “Tender Mercies,” showing us characters who express their trauma by choosing not to express it, as if it would make them explode. That mood — of pain hanging in the air, of unvoiced despair — creates a kind of signifying art atmosphere of authenticity. Neugebauer, making her first feature, is good at it; she’s got the instincts of a true filmmaker. Yet “Causeway” is a drama of redemption that’s both touching and a little arduous. Just because your characters are suffering doesn’t mean they have to mostly stop talking.

Lawrence, returning to her indie roots, starring in a film that will likely make people think of “Winter’s Bone” (the 2010 drama that put her on the map), gives a solid performance that’s raw, plain, stripped of pretense. She makes Lynsey vulnerable and rather impassive; we keep studying her unmade-up face for clues to what’s happening inside. Lynsey gets a job cleaning swimming pools, yet she yearns to go back to the theater of war. From the moment she visits her neurologist, played by the always excellent Stephen McKinley Henderson, she talks about wanting to be redeployed. She was not in combat (she was a water engineer), but this strikes everyone she knows, and also the audience, as a terrible idea, given all she’s been though. Is it toughness, stubbornness, or is she trying to escape something?

Stopping at a garage after her family’s truck breaks down, Lynsey meets James, a laid-back mechanic, who chats with her a bit and then offers to give her a ride. They chat some more, which is encouraging in a movie that doesn’t prize conversation. James, played with a poky spontaneity by Brian Tyree Henry, is a comforting bear of a man who has issues of his own (he was in a serious car accident), and these two like hanging out. It seems like it could be a romance, until she squashes any thoughts in that direction — for James and for the audience — by revealing that she’s gay. They become friends, but the dialogue, by co-screenwriters Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Sanders, remains on the minimalist side. The two share some rather important confessions but never just sit around and talk about…stuff. Any levity would dilute the despondency.  

It will sound, to some, like I’m carping. “Causeway” traces the healing of a soul, takes its time doing so, and allows actors as good as Lawrence and Henry to vibe together, so what’s the problem? By the end, the film delivers you to a place that feels real. But we have to travel through a zone of fairly arid desolation to get there. That’s been a hallmark of some indie cinema, but it’s one that fewer and fewer moviegoers may now want to walk through.

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