Intimate Character Study Causeway Confronts the Hell of Healing

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Intimate Character Study <i>Causeway</i> Confronts the Hell of Healing

The emotional resonance of Causeway, the film debut from theater director Lila Neugebauer, is entirely indebted to the staggering performances of its lead actors. Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, a former Army engineer who suffers a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan and returns stateside as a result. She meets James (Brian Tyree Henry, arguably the powerhouse of the two) in her hometown of New Orleans, driving her busted truck into his auto body shop by mere chance. Their burgeoning connection propels the film through a (slightly laggy) 91-minute runtime, the two taking turns divulging harsh, intimate truths about their imperfect pasts. While Lawrence and Henry imbue each scene they share with oscillating doses of humor and melancholy, the final product feels somewhat strained and stunted, particularly in its investigation into the hellish reality of actively trying to heal.

We first meet Lynsey as a recently-wounded combatant, confined to a wheelchair and with a kind caregiver named Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell) before she heads back to New Orleans to move back into her childhood home. Her only family is her mother (Linda Emond), whose lifelong ambivalence toward Lynsey is conveniently captured when she forgets to pick up her veteran daughter at the bus station. Nevertheless, she brushes off her mother’s negligence and puts all of her energy into quickly finding a job. She happily accepts a pool-cleaning gig on the spot; anything to save her from mom’s offer to work in her office building.

Lawrence’s portrayal of Lynsey is suffused with a subtle awkwardness that’s the perfect contrast to James, who exudes Henry’s natural charm and charisma. The duo regularly discuss the traumas that have irreparably shaped their current lives (though James is often asked to reveal more about his heartache than Lynsey is)—a highly effective (if unhealthy) method for forming a co-dependent relationship. They begin seeing each other constantly, driving around in James’ car before settling in for the night to drown their sorrows in beer and blunt smoke. Their confessions to each other are powerful, but it’s nonetheless obvious that they’re both dancing around a lot of facts that they’d rather not rehash, confront or acknowledge at all. They don’t press each other to reveal more than they’re comfortable with.

Co-written by Elizabeth Sanders, Ottessa Moshfegh (the novelist behind Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation) and Luke Goebel (Moshfegh’s husband), the story borders on pessimistic, likely due to Moshfegh’s hand in shaping the narrative. Of course, both characters act selfishly on occasion (with Lynsey making some pointedly brutal accusations against the comparatively sparing James), but the clever cynicism inherent to Moshfegh’s bibliography is totally absent. Even the institutional failures inherent to the characters’ struggles—namely as it concerns military and healthcare systems in this country—are hardly addressed. For a writer known for her incisive societal observations, the relative lack of broader intellectual investigation in Causeway is surprising.

It could be argued that this omission is to make room for the perspectives of principal screenwriter Elizabeth Sanders (who wrote the script before Moshfegh and Goebel were brought on board) as a New Orleans native, but the city never quite gets the on-screen presence it deserves. The protagonists’ houses may be indicative of the city’s signature architecture—and they do indulge in Snowballs, a local delicacy—but the city fades into the background, making the film’s setting more of a lingering essence. When considering how often the characters discuss their conflicting feelings about the city, it’s surprising that so much of the film takes place in confined spaces (doctor’s offices, nondescript bars, fenced backyard pools) instead of local spots that emphasize their differing biases.

Maybe the film’s dull, claustrophobic aesthetic is supposed to convey the sensation of being somewhere you desperately want to run away from. Lynsey spends the entire film biding her time, hoping for a clean bill of health to re-deploy, a plan that troubles her doctor as much as it does James and her mother. Despite getting “blown up” (her own words) in Afghanistan, she’d risk the chance of driving over another IED much quicker than nursing the scabbed-over childhood wounds that threaten to burst open with each day she spends in New Orleans.

Lynsey’s resolution to this personal dilemma culminates in predictable tugs at the heartstrings. It’s easy to be emotionally moved by stories of damaged Americans, with our many national “crises” involving addiction, over-militarization and car culture. Yet it’s hard to parse exactly what Causeway wants to say about the integral role of taking personal accountability through healing. Forgiveness is presented as a duty that’s often dashed by selfish personal hangups; healing from trauma is a linear journey, the lasting effects easily diffused with a friend and a six-pack. Collectively, we’d probably all like to believe that the latter sentiment is true, precisely because it offers two of the greatest coping mechanisms in existence: A drink and an equally fucked-up buddy to share it with you. You’ve got to admit, that’s some uniquely American medicine.

Director: Lila Neugebauer
Writers: Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jayne Houdyshell, Russell Harvard
Release Date: November 4, 2022 (Apple TV+)

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan