In sprawling moments of quiet agony, Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” finds its most valuable state of being: intimacy. That’s where this story, centered around two people struggling to heal from past trauma, thrives; it’s also where Neugebauer, Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry come together in a beautifully mellifluous and powerful way. Together, they craft scenes that resemble a timid reality, bleeding empathy from wounds that their characters just can’t seem to heal.
These wounds are unique to each character. For Lynsey (Lawrence), it’s brain damage from her time in the military coupled with an emotionally unstable household. For James (Henry), it’s the loss of a limb as well as his nephew from a fatal car accident. Lynsey, a discharged member of the Army Corp of Engineers, finds herself stuck in her hometown, struggling to reintegrate into civilian life after her injury. Needing repairs for her truck, she soon meets James, a mechanic, and the two bond in their loneliness, finding comfort in each other as the pain from their respective histories begins to resurface.
While the inner turmoil of each character is personal and unique, their onscreen presentation melds into a beautiful, heart-wrenching and deeply intertwined tale. The chemistry between Lawrence and Henry is effortlessly palpable — just as it must be for this film to function. “Causeway” relies heavily on the two having a believable and affective relationship, and the film takes full advantage of this its most potent moments. Conversations between Lynsey and James somehow feel both tragic and tender, balanced by a lens that accurately captures the love and pain that two people can share.
From the outset, viewers are immersed in the moody atmosphere with Lawrence alone, following her character’s struggle to return to normalcy. What marks Lawrence as one of the most gifted actors of her generation is her ability to emote silently and with incredible nuance, and this carries these scenes in the film’s most intimate moments. The agony of her character is all-encompassing, making “Causeway” feel like an inevitable return to form for Lawrence, as well as a possible pathway to an Oscar this upcoming awards season. However, this film isn’t merely a one-man machine.
Henry likewise embodies his character with patent charm and charisma which is indiscernible as fiction. His character appears full and rich with complexity that is only compounded in scenes opposite Lawrence, where often the two delve into a harrowing vulnerability together, exchanging affection and anguish with equal authority. A phenomenal musical score underlines these most powerful moments in “Causeway,” and with gorgeously tuned visual composition, it creates an atmosphere that lingers far beyond the rolling credits.
Yet it is when Lawrence and Henry are separated that the film seems to stumble. In these scenes, “Causeway” seems to become lost in itself, abandoning valuable momentum and emotion for sequences which meander around much more interesting and impressive moments. Sometimes Lawrence is able to compensate with her natural gift for creating empathy, but for the most part, these scenes simply feel misplaced. Still, “Causeway” leads with its best foot forward, distracting from its missteps with some of the most compelling moments in cinema this year.
With further fine-tuning, “Causeway” could be amongst the great dramas that go on to define 2022. Its story is a tragically beautiful one, capturing the tale of two people looking for comfort and affirmation in a world that only seems to harbor grief. To its benefit, the spirit of its characters still remains long after the film ends, whose wounds seem to morph into a much more dynamic portrait of the human experience. Amazingly, Neugebauer achieves this without saying much at all, letting the camera and its subjects tell this story in a gut-wrenching silence.
As her big-screen directorial debut, Neugebauer’s “Causeway” is a stunning example of how drama can function without all the noise. Minimalism lives in this film without regret or hesitation, and what results is a painfully cinematic work that will certainly move the hearts and minds of any who dare to sit in its unrelenting, quiet simmer.