' ' Cinema Romantico: Causeway

Monday, December 12, 2022


Though Lake Superior is, as the name implies, first-rate, there is another lake on Minnesota’s North Shore that I think of just as fondly, one that encompasses all of 68 acres rather than some 20-million. Inland, undeveloped, and not right off the Caribou hiking trail near Lutsen but requiring a moderately difficult 2-mile hike to get there, my dad and I have generally had Lake Agnes all to ourselves whenever we have trekked to it. And if there is serenity in this world, reader, I tell you it is Lake Agnes. The stillness, it is profound, how you can both seem to hear everything for miles and hear nothing at all, reaching that state of meditation where your thoughts give way to peaceful thoughtlessness, the closest I’ve come to understanding that Bruce Lee mantra, the one about being water. Not being like water; being water, an emptied mind, formless, shapeless, innately malleable to whatever life throws at you. 

“Causeway” is set in New Orleans, however, not Minnesota, where a U.S. Army Corp of Engineer named Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) comes home from Afghanistan after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in a bomb attack. That backstory is not laid out immediately, however. Director Lila Neugebauer comes from the stage and though this marks her feature film debut, she already demonstrates in assured eye for guiding us visually and allowing her performers to evince emotion rather than having them impress it upon us with words. In the introductory scenes of a home care nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) getting Lynsey back up to speed with the basics, which could have been a movie unto itself, Lawrence gradually lets you see Lynsey plugging back into the world while Houdyshell evinces a hard-won optimism that never becomes cloying, and the kind to which Lynsey unwittingly inspires.

Eventually, Lynsey returns home to the little house she shares with her mother (Linda Emond), though her mother’s initial absence upon her arrival and their elliptical conversations speaks volumes to the nature of their relationship without saying much at all. Lynsey is silently suffering her trauma, in other words, and rather than utilizing dialogue or flashbacks to fill out that trauma, Neugebauer honors her main character’s repression by repressing it on screen too, the tension it causes merely humming on the periphery and in Lawrence’s gestures. After taking a hit from a joint and expressing disbelief if not disgust at being back home, Lawrence turns just her head to the right and expels the smoke in such a way to suggest a brief expelling of all that emotional bile. In that exhalation is everything. Even when Lynsey’s doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) asks that she explain in detail what happened to her in Afghanistan, her explanation is cold, matter of fact, saying the words deliberately stripped of any feeling, not letting herself feel them.

If she makes emotional inroads, it is with James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic who helps when her truck breaks down. Though their initial meeting is a tad narratively contrived, the portrayal of their relationship is the furthest thing from. He has suffered his own trauma but, crucially, never exists merely as a reflection of Lynsey or cheerleader to her (or something even worse), instead a full-fledged character in his own right, co-equals. Henry consciously plays someone further along in his own recovery, illustrated by his kind of chill air, even as grief palpably lingers, a performance of someone who is still learning to live with that grief and who needs a friend just as much as Lynsey. Neugebauer likes to frame them in two shots, allowing space for their natural chemistry to breathe and also to bring home each other’s presence in the other one’s life. In a nighttime scene on a park bench, we see them both in the frame both up close and from a distance, and though from a distance they are expressly shown as alone, together they still come across less lonely. 

Many of their scenes take place in or around the pools on account of the job Lynsey takes cleaning them. Nominally, this ties back to her role within the Army Corps maintaining water systems, though Neugebauer deploys this small piece of plot to heighten the emotional effect, the stillness of so many pool surfaces of the pools mirroring the stillness of Lynsey, a character gradually heeding an inner call to action that manifests itself not in some massive plot twist but one simple question. And if in her David O. Russell extravaganzas and even last year’s “Don’t Look Up,” Lawrence demonstrated a gift for going big, in “Causeway” she strains everything out of her performance until there is virtually nothing left; she becomes water.

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