We are, by now, collectively familiar with “trauma dramas” — those movies powered by folks navigating the thorny-to-rocky road to recovery after something life-changing, damaging, physically and psychically disruptive. The cause can differ from film to film: addiction, chronic abuse, the loss of friends and loved ones, enduring a natural disaster and/or violent catastrophe. The films themselves sometimes blend together via a numbing sense of similarity, from the Humpty Dumpty journey of reassembly hitting snags to something approaching a healing process. When these trauma dramas are outstanding, they make you feel like you’ve just been cracked open and been painstakingly put back together again (see: the oft-quoted statement about cinema being an empathy machine). When they’re not, they come off as horribly reductive, near exploitative, and little more than obstacle courses for name actors. There’s a reason so many of these slink into theaters and onto streaming services during the autumn months.
Causeway, the new movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, technically falls somewhere in the middle of this category, although it has a tendency to keep drifting towards the “quietly amazing” side of the spectrum. Drift is a key word here, as that’s the pace that the movie operates on; there’s a sort of ambling, buying-time vibe that not only mirrors the main character’s slow, unsteady return to “normal,” but helps distinguish this film from a long line of life-after-wartime stories. (It opens wide and hits Apple+ on Friday, November 4th.)
Lawrence’s character, Lynsey, is introduced to us courtesy of a close-up shot of the back of her head. An older woman (The Humans‘ Jayne Houdyshell), just out of focus, is talking to a soldier, negotiating some sort of terms of release. When this handler moves to help her ward towards her car, we see that Lynsey is in a wheelchair. She’s a U.S. Army veteran, just released from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. An I.E.D. and an ambush left several of her companions dead, and Linsey with a brain injury. The wheelchair suggests she’s got a lot of P.T. ahead of her. The thousand-yard stare hints that she may be even deeper in a P.T.S.D. downward spiral than we might suspect.
A loose series of sequences of Lynsey relearning how to function, regaining her co-ordination (the injury seems to have affected her motor skills), talking to physicians and counselors, idly cleaning pools and randomly bursting into tears drops viewers into her affliction, but Causeway isn’t interested in minutely detailing a cause-and-effect relationship between What Happened and What Lies Ahead. It’s strictly a present-tense movie; we’re simply riding shotgun with this young woman, as she deals with whatever the day brings her. When we do eventually find out what led her from a combat zone to circling back to her hometown of New Orleans, the movie delivers this bombshell anecdote by simply having Lynsey casually retell the story to her doctor. The whole traumatic incident — the thing that has cleaved this person’s existence into before and after halves — is tossed off like she’s remembering that time she went to the beach that one summer. (Both Lawrence and first-time director Lila Neugebauer have said that flashback scenes set in Afghanistan were filmed, then left on the cutting floor. The omission avoids any potential for war porn. It’s a genuinely smart move.)
Then Lynsey asks when she can “go back to work.” She is a soldier, and the sooner she can be re-deployed, the sooner life goes on. That is her true normal.
It won’t surprise anyone to discover, should you not recognize Neugebauer’s name, that she’s got a long history in the theater (she directed the recent Tony-winning revival of The Waverly Gallery), and that so much of Causeway has the feel of watching an off-Broadway play. It isn’t that the film is stagy — it makes excellent use of NOLA neighborhoods without feeling lookie-loo touristy — so much as it operates at the same oft-kilter, actor-driven rhythm and has a comfort with ambiguity you associate with a certain type of stagework.
Nor is this some sort of check-this-out showcase for movie stars, though it’s definitely a movie that reminds you how natural and beautifully unaffected Lawrence can be onscreen. Yes, she gets her moments of midnight screaming and smacking steering wheels and a few exchanges with Linda Emond, playing Lynsey’s self-centered and soused mom, that threaten to detonate at a moment’s notice. But so much of what she’s doing here, especially in the film’s readjustment-heavy first half, is playing shellshocked sans the usual grandstanding. There is no all-caps ACTING here. Instead, Lawrence dials in to an uncomfortable numbness that tamps everything about Lynsey down, and thus keeps the performance at a recognizably human, rather than headline-friendly social-drama level. There’s a return to one’s roots happening in more ways than one. And when she’s given a scene partner that can both rise to her level and push back at her, you can feel Causeway keep that humanistic impulse going while switching into another gear entirely.
That would be Brian Tyree Henry, and to extol not just the talents of this actor but what he brings to the movie is to risk readers venturing into TL;DR territory and this author getting permanent writers’ cramp. Playing a mechanic named James who bonds with Lynsey over their respective traumas — he didn’t serve, but has his own wounds and his own history of pain — Henry essentially turns a character study into what essentially becomes a two-hander. Both of these slightly lost souls tentatively form a friendship. He’s on more solid ground than she is, but he’s the “stable” one only in comparison. And if you’ve watched Henry casually toss off important lines or deep emotional moments in four seasons of Atlanta — or Widows, or If Beale Street Could Talk, or just about anything he’s in — the way that NBA all-stars casually throw wet shots, then you know this Yale drama grad is someone who understands the importance of living in the moment onscreen. He and Lawrence couldn’t complement each other more in terms of slow-and-low rapport. They have mastered the art of harmonizing with each other while subtly lowering the volume.
Whenever it’s simply these two opening up to each other, or trying to open up to each other and almost but not quite succeeding, Causeway feels almost voyeuristic — like you’ve stumbled across two people fumbling through small talk until they surprisingly sync up. Or, in a few cases, taking one step forward in connecting before gliding a half-dozen steps backward. When the movie tries to narrow down on the will-she-won’t-she, can-she-should-she notion of returning to the field, or getting away from her toxic home life and looking to a sustainable future, it starts to resemble the ghosts of trauma dramas past. Like Coming Home (1978), a natural point of comparison if somewhat of a dated one, it’s blessed and also a little cursed with having a duo at the center of it all that feel more compelling than the raw narrative material. Unlike that earlier story of return and rebirth, it doesn’t look to romance as salvation. It simply lets these two people try to save each other, one act of kindness at a time.