A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9, 2022

Rank: #19

CAUSEWAY jjj
 

2022, R, 92 mins.

Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey  /  Brian Tyree Henry as James  /  Linda Emond as Gloria  /  Jayne Houdyshell as Sharon  /  Stephen McKinley Henderson as Dr. Lucas  /  Russell Harvard as Justin  

Directed by Lila Neugebauer  /  Written by Elizabeth Sanders, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Luke Goebel

ORIGINAL FILM

I remember watching WINTER'S BONE over a decade ago starring a then completely unknown Jennifer Lawrence and I knew at the time that this actress had that ethereal it factor and was going to be a major force in the industry to come.  

Not only did she nab her first of multiple Oscar nominations for that drama at the young age of 20, but her effortlessly natural and low key performance helped to pave the way for her superlative career to come, which culminated in a very deserving Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress for 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Very few actresses at such a young age can take the move world by storm as much as Lawrence has and in such a rich variety of film genres.  She has confidently inhabited big game blockbuster franchises like THE HUNGER GAMES and comic book and sci-fi extravaganzas like X-MEN and PASSENGERS with relative ease, but she can also occupy smaller scale satires like the very recent DON'T LOOK UP.   In many respects, she's a real Swiss Army Knife as far as actresses go and can assuredly swing from one film to the next with relative ease. 

This takes me to CAUSEWAY, which could not be anymore different than her last major film role in the star studded Adam McKay directed DON'T LOOK UP.  Marking the feature film directorial debut of American theatre director Lila Neugebauer and working under a modest budget, this new indie hits Lawrence's resume at just the right time in her career, and for the first time in an awfully long time the Oscar winner gives the same kind of effectively modulated and powerfully understated performance that echoes her career jump starting work in Debra Granik's aforementioned 2010 indie drama.  Some have been labeling CAUSEWAY as a return to form for the 32-year-old actress, which somehow implies that she was on some sort of downward career spiral.  I don't particularly subscribe to that notion, but, yes, her finely tuned appearance in such spare and economical micro-budget fare far removed from the Hollywood machine certainly comes full circle to how her career modestly began.  And watching her own every frame she occupies here with such an unassuming authority makes me certainly wish that she did more dramas like CAUSEWAY. 

 

 

Neugebauer deserves major credit here too, especially for the way she delves into a dime a dozen genre - the wounded military veteran struggling to acclimate back to civilian life drama - and somehow and miraculously never makes the material lazily predictable in going from one preordained beat to the next.  The story arc contained here is one that has been done countless times before, yes, but the journey that Neugebauer takes us on with her characters rarely feels routine or contrived.  Lawrence plays Lynsey, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was severely wounded during a tour in Afghanistan, which led to her return home to recover from a devastating brain injury that left her - initially, at least - unable to perform the most mundane of daily physical tasks.  Rather brilliantly, Neugebauer plants audiences right smack dab in the middle of Lynsey's hellish rehab as the film opens and lets us pick up the pieces of what has actually happened to her as the story progresses.  In order to be allowed to fully return to normal civilian life, Lynsey has go through a painful and sometimes demoralizing rehab, led by Nurse Sharon (a terrific Jayne Houdyshell), who has to navigate this once capable woman back into normal shape.  In the early stages of rehab, Lynsey is barely able to walk under her own power, dress herself, clean herself, use the bathroom herself, and so forth, and the dramatic impact of these sequences pack a real wallop.  We rarely see the typically commanding Lawrence in such a fragile physical and emotional state to open a film.  Lawrence has a thankless task here committing to the rigors of these scenes, but Houdyshell is equally strong being a constantly kind and nurturing support figure trying to get her patient through recovery. 

After months of grueling rehab, Lynsey is finally allowed out and back to a life of relatively normalcy, but like many army vets returning from combat and getting used to civilian life this proves to be difficult.  She returns home to live with her mother, Gloria (Linda Emond), who's frankly in over her head when it comes to dealing with her daughter.  This leads to Lynsey deciding to find quick employment, and she does as a pool cleaner, but her heart is not really in this work at all.  All she yearns for is to return back to Afghanistan.  On one fateful day her already broken down truck completely dies on her, taking her to a local repair shop run by James (Brian Tyree Henry), who not only takes pity on the army vet and her truck woes, but also offers her some emotional support outside of the shop.  Slowly, but surely, Lynsey lets her guard down and begins to open up to her newfound pal in James, and as their friendship grows they both begin to relay inner details about their respective lives (both of them have dealt with their own share of trauma).  Lynsey just wants to pass her medical exam and head back to military life, but James feels that she's not psychologically ready at all.  He discovers that she has baggage and issues that go well beyond her war wounds. 

One of CAUSEWAY's biggest strengths is in how it deals with the central relationship between Lynsey and James, which  under a lesser and more troupe filled screenplay would have set this doomed pair up for an obligatory romance.  Sexual tension does obviously exist between these two lost souls, but Neugebauer and her screenwriters Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders are not interested in exploring the accoutrements of such a union between the pair.  CAUSEWAY is more compelled in exploring the idea of shared past trauma and how these two individuals end up leaning on one another as emotional anchors and a mutually beneficial support system.  For Lynsey, she needs someone outside of nurses and her family to confide in about how her life was almost taken by an IED on the battlefront, and James - in similar fashion - needs an outlet too to relay his own pains and insecurities about losing his leg during a dreadful car accident.  There is a moment when it does seem that James and Lynsey are headed towards a romantic union, but the writers - and the characters themselves - realize that this is not the path they want to forge ahead on.  There's an authentic layer of social awkwardness that permeates their relationship.  Both would rather solve their respective problems and issues by talking it out versus engaging in a sexual fling, the latter of which would seem to cheapen their roads to recovery.  I really admired how CAUSEWAY essentially becomes a very simple tale of two people trying to sort through the minefield of their own nightmarish pasts through friendship.  The dramatic thoughtfulness that's on display in film really helps elevate the material far above my own expectations of it heading in. 

And Lawrence and Henry are such an inspired pair here, and both of their respective performances have to walk this delicate highwire act of opening up to each other with compassion and sensitivity and without coming off as alienating.  Lawrence is obviously the higher marquee attraction here, but she never manages to obtrusively hog the spotlight away from her co-star and instead operates at a much lower register than what we're usually accustomed to with her previous roles/performances (this is the furthest thing away from, say, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK).  Lawrence is superb at evoking this young woman's frustration, anxiety, and fears with the most modest of strokes, and we gain a sense that Lynsey is a ferociously prideful woman that despises having to rely on anyone for help, but ultimately comes to realize that she could greatly benefit from it.  She's as good as she's ever been in a film, but is wonderfully complimented by the textured performance of Henry as well, who imbues in James a wounded humanity, calm spoken pragmatism, and serene dignity that helps him effectively give as good as Lawrence does in their scenes together.  I've seen him in larger than life and boisterous comedic roles in films like GODZILLA VS KONG and, more recently, BULLET TRAIN, but his work in CAUSEWAY shows a side to his abilities that I haven't seen before on screen.  Lawrence may be on the poster as the lead star and certainly deserves accolades for her Oscar nomination worthy performance, but it takes - as they say - two to tango, and Henry is CAUSEWAY's other integral key to success.   This is career high work for him. 

CAUSEWAY might be, however, a bit too restrained for many viewers, and sometimes the film does feel longer than its meager 90-plus minutes reflects.  The film could have benefited from better pacing, and the final sections of the story - after some late breaking personal conflicts and roadblocks - seem to course correct themselves a bit too quickly to be completely believed (it's almost as if Neugebauer has written her film into a corner and doesn't know where to fully proceed, leading to an ending that comes off as rushed).  Having said that, CAUSEWAY is the kind of serenely rendered, patiently observed, and empathetic drama that's not made with over the top dramatic theatrics.  It's a story of pain and redemption, even if the road taken for it is messy and beset with obstacles.  And Neugebauer never judges her characters either, which is so refreshing, and simply allows us to be in their company and witness them finding connections to heal in their own unique ways.  The film is stylistically unshowy, which is crucial because it allows the toweringly good Lawrence and Henry here to stand out and do the heavy lifting.  CAUSEWAY has been flying under a lot of peoples' radars this season, mostly because it isn't a flashy piece of obvious Oscar bait.  And it's far better for it. 

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