Causeway: an under-directed drama that squanders its considerable potential

Though it features adroit performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry, this stolid drama from Lila Neugebauer shows little flair for visual expression.

Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey in Causeway (2022)
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is characteristic of Causeway’s restraint that we never see the incident that caused army engineer Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) to return from Afghanistan with a severe brain injury. Even when she describes the traumatic experience of being in a vehicle blown up by an IED, she talks about it dispassionately, as if she is describing something that happened to somebody else. As Lynsey must relearn some basic motor functions, we might expect the film to focus on the arduous nature of her physical recovery, but Causeway moves past her period in a rehabilitation centre (featuring a tiny gem of a supporting turn from Jayne Houdyshell) before the first quarter of the film has elapsed.

Lila Neugebauer’s direct and unsensational approach to telling this story does make a kind of sense, as Lynsey is a woman in a hurry with no time for self-pity. She is determined to complete her rehabilitation as quickly as possible so she can re-deploy in Afghanistan, leaving behind the hometown and dysfunctional family that spurred her to enlist in the first place. Neugebauer’s commitment to understatement is admirable, but her style can also leave the film feeling undernourished and dramatically inert. Its 92-minute running time could have been bolstered with more screen time for Linda Emond or Stephen McKinley Henderson, both of whom may have benefitted from another scene to shape their characters; or perhaps it simply needed some variation in pace or tone. Neugebauer is an established director in the American theatre, but she shows little sense for visual expressiveness in her feature debut, with cinematographer Diego García framing the drama in too many static medium shots.

The film does seem to breathe a little easier whenever Brian Tyree Henry enters the picture. He plays James, a mechanic who lost a leg in a car accident, and who becomes an unexpected rock for Lynsey. The instantly amiable Henry is capable of dredging up great reserves of anguish, as anyone who saw his indelible cameo in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) will attest, and Jennifer Lawrence has always been adept at playing characters who present a tough, flinty exterior to the world that masks their inner insecurities. It is easy to get drawn into the nuanced and adroitly acted conversations between these two broken individuals as they form a tentative bond, but the film falls short of reaching the emotional heart of the story. Causeway is about Lynsey learning to let people in, but the film keeps us on the outside, right up to its abrupt and unsatisfying ending.