Depressive drama Causeway, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a recovering Afghanistan war veteran trapped in her hometown, marks the latest collaboration between indie film company A24 and Apple TV+.
Lawrence, dipping her toe back into being a movie star following last year’s Don’t Look Up, returns to her roots in the film, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+. Causeway hits a lot of expected Sundance/indie movie beats but finds grace notes in quieter, less empathic scenes.
The movie opens with Lawrence’s character Lynsey back from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury. The year appears to be before the Obama presidency, based on the cellphones in use. Lynsey’s injury resulted from an I.E.D. that left everyone in her unit dead. She barely escaped, suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage. Now she can’t use her hands and feet properly. She spends weeks (months?) with a live-in nurse (played by Jayne Houdyshell), relearning how to walk and brush her teeth.
When she’s in good enough shape to leave the care home, she heads back to New Orleans, her birthplace. (That seems a little odd, considering neither she nor her mother have an accent.) Her mom (Linda Emond) is an alcoholic wastrel dating a man we never see. She wants to talk with Lynsey, but her daughter is not interested. They both know the accident changed her, and Lynsey is in no mood to talk about that. She just wants to look forward.
Lynsey figures the only real thing left for her is to return to her job at the Army Corps of Engineers. But the trouble is, will they take her back? She still drops things unexpectedly, due to spasms from her still partially misfiring brain. She sees a doctor (the great Stephen McKinley Henderson), but he’s not at all convinced that her requests to come off her medication, and her talk about feeling great all the time, are coming from a genuine place.
A truck … and a new friend
Now this would be plenty of drama for one movie, but there’s also the matter of her truck. Her mom gifts her the family’s old truck to get around, but the engine starts smoking the first time she takes it out. She takes it to a mechanic named James (Brian Tyree Henry), who gives her a lift home afterward.
They get to talking and realize they have people in common. They also both recognize that they’re broken individuals, scarred by losses and going nowhere in particular. Then they start hanging out more and more until they’re thoroughly tangled up in each other’s feelings in a way that threatens to tear them apart.
The return of Jennifer Lawrence
In hindsight, Jennifer Lawrence’s professional arc doesn’t seem unexpected. She emerged from the land of midbudget independent dramas like The Burning Plain and Debra Granik’s superlative Winter’s Bone, which netted Lawrence a best actress nomination at the Academy Awards in 2011.
Then she was off to the races. In 2012, she became the star of the colossal X-Men and The Hunger Games franchises and starred opposite Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s hugely popular Silver Linings Playbook, which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. (She beat out French icon Emmanuelle Riva, which was a typically embarrassing bit of optics for the academy.)
The Hunger Games and X-Men movies kept coming, as did their inexhaustible press machinery, which meant that Lawrence was basically everywhere you looked all the time, telling stories about defiling sacred shrines and riding a Jet Ski through the Vatican.
When Jennifer Lawrence lost the thread
I don’t know if it’s at all possible to quantify such a thing, but it seemed like Lawrence fatigue settled in around the time she made the baffling 2015 film Joy, once again for Russell. Haircuts and accents were doing the work for her.
Then the polarizing Mother! in 2017 was much discussed but didn’t make its money back, the X-Men movies looked increasingly like incomplete software demos, and Lawrence’s makeup got less complicated with every movie, as if she was demanding it so she could leave set faster. Her increasingly somnambulant performance seemed like a confirmation.
Then she and her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation) made Red Sparrow, one of the most misguided vanity projects of the 21st century. In it, she plays a Russian ballerina-turned-spy trained in the art of sexual coercion. It’s nonsensical — a movie gleefully wallowing in casual trauma that nevertheless tries to posit Lawrence as a Bond girl-style dynamo capable of turning the tides of wars with her body.
Red Sparrow garnered her some of her worst reviews ever. She wisely stepped back from the public eye until 2021’s Don’t Look Now, which was marred by a preening, self-important press tour from its writer and director.
Acting for the camera
Causeway is a very deliberate attempt on Lawrence’s part (she also produced) to remind people why they liked her to begin with. She strips away as much of the self-consciousness David O. Russell‘s dreadful movies called for her to exhibit.
Remembering, as I’m cursed to, her unhinged vamping in the inexcusable American Hustle, means that her transformation into Lynsey — a damaged, self-loathing, gay veteran — would have to be quite impressive. It doesn’t exactly rise to that but she is pretty good here. She’s still just too aware of the camera, too aware of herself. This character should be miles away, like her Winter’s Bone heroine. Lawrence can’t really do that anymore.
This wouldn’t be quite so much of a liability if the rest of the cast didn’t keep upstaging her. Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Russell Harvard (who plays her former addict brother) are all much more naturalistic performers, and they make the seams of Lawrence’s performance show.
Henry is a consistent joy, a force of nature, and the part of James allows him to show how much he can say without coming out and saying it. Those sad eyes deliver monologues in this movie. He’s incredible.
Linda Emond, who was so good in Lodge 49, is a marvel as Lawrence’s nagging mother. A scene of the two of them sharing a kiddie pool at night is quietly poetic and beautiful. In fact, the movie delivers a number of gorgeous, unforced interactions, like Lawrence’s overdue reunion with Harvard during prison visiting hours. Excellent, excellent work — and probably Lawrence’s best scene in Causeway.
An opportunity lost
If the film could have allowed itself to simply be a behavioral study, instead of feeling the need to hit so many expected beats, no matter how well-performed or subtly pitched, it could have risen above good to become great.
It doesn’t matter how quietly Causeway introduces and illustrates the idea of Lawrence cleaning pools for a living and only finally cleaning the pool in her own backyard after she hits rock bottom. It’s still a hoary cliche, and has no business in a movie as good as this one hopes to be.
I could watch this supporting cast do anything, and they do elevate this movie. Unfortunately, Causeway too often refuses itself the chance to be more.
Watch Causeway on Apple TV+
Causeway premieres November 4 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.