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Causeway review – Jennifer Lawrence’s PTSD drama is well-acted but muted to a fault

An otherwise often unremarkable story of trauma and healing is elevated by a masterful performance from Brian Tyree Henry

In a lot of movies, a military homecoming is a big deal, all celebrations, emotional reunions, and awkward frissons between those who’ve known and those who haven’t. Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway takes a different tack. When former Army Engineer Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) gets back to her mum’s dilapidated New Orleans house after being discharged for a brain injury, it’s to no fanfare at all – forgotten at the bus stop, Lynsey has to walk home and finds her room unprepared, filth in the sink, and a mum who has already made social plans. It’s grim but understated, a fitting introduction to this muted-to-a-fault drama.

The bulk of Lynsey’s physical recovery is tackled in the first ten or so minutes, living with a military rehab expert (nicely played by Jayne Houdyshell) until she gets most of her fine motor skills back. Neugebauer is less interested in this than she is in Lynsey’s desperation to re-escape her New Orleans life and get back to Afghanistan (where she sustained her injury in an IED attack). It’s a drive that Lawrence plays well, though one that is lessened when she meets and befriends James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic struggling with PTSD of his own after losing his leg in a car crash that decimated his family.

This – entirely platonic – relationship is the heart of Causeway and, though Lawrence gives a strong, subtle performance, the film only really lights up whenever Henry is on screen. Wasted in blockbuster slop like Eternals and Bullet Train in recent months, Henry reminds us that he really is one of the best actors working today and, if nothing else, Causeway shows that he is long overdue a true star vehicle of his own. He doesn’t strike a single false note here, granting James a rich inner life that you feel will continue whether or not the cameras are rolling.

The rest of the film isn’t quite as compelling, though. The story moves forward glacially, with only a few moments that really grip and the small streak of “indie drama” quirk that Neugebauer and writers Luke Goebel, Otessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Sanders work in clashes with the resolutely realistic tone found elsewhere. Neugebauer, making her feature debut, has a strong background in theatre, which shows for both better and worse – her trust in her actors is very strongly repaid, but there’s an unescapable staginess to a lot of the more dialogue-heavy scenes, even when we’re taken to the, oddly personality-free, streets of New Orleans.

It’s an effect compounded by an overly insistent score – the two lead performances here sometimes deserve more confident filmmaking around them. Luckily, Causeway’s is a story that mostly lends itself to a first-time director, an actors’ showcase that doesn’t take too many risks and lays the groundwork for better things to come. You might end up wanting a few more emotional fireworks, but as a vehicle for Lawrence’s first serious star performance since 2017, it’s a mostly dependable package, elevated by yet another masterclass from Henry, one of Hollywood’s best and most under-utilised actors.

Causeway was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas and on Apple TV+ on 4 November.

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