Brian Tyree Henry is the good kind of effortless: You never catch him straining; his craft is invisible. In 2022, nobody else could touch him: Between his Oscar-nominated performance in Lila Neugebauer’s underrated indie drama Causeway and his work on the fourth and final season of Atlanta, the 40-year-old North Carolina native was so good that you couldn’t even hold Bullet Train against him. Even when he’s trading forced action-movie one-liners with Brad Pitt, Henry manages to keep things tight, like a batter protecting the strike zone. Give him halfway-decent material, and he knocks it out of the park.
Over the past seven years, Henry’s role on Atlanta as the self-made A-lister Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles—an overnight success stridently enjoying his unexpected, Biggie-style largesse while perpetually sweating his street status—stretched him from soulful neurosis to deadpan detachment and back again. In each season, he was asked to carry at least one entire episode on his back; for 2018’s all-timer “Woods,” which put Paper Boi through a wringer of violence, humiliation, bewilderment, and a Get Out–style encounter with a dead deer, Henry was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He deserved at least as much for last November’s tour de force performance in the superbly strange Season 4 standout “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World.” Having impulsively decided to go off the grid—and to the farm—for some down time, Al found himself accidentally trapped under his own tractor, bloodied, alone, and staring down mortality in the form of a group of marijuana-crazed feral hogs. (He eventually beats one porcine intruder to death with a skillet in a harrowingly funny climax.) “They always making Paper Boi go through something” was the episode’s cryptically apt tagline, getting at something deeper about Henry’s character and his importance to the show as a whole. As series mastermind Donald Glover gradually receded onscreen (or else hid in creepy, white-faced alter egos), Al became Atlanta’s true, existentially addled protagonist: an artist unsure of his muse, an overachiever comfortable everywhere except in his own skin.
That Henry hasn’t always picked movies worthy of his talent isn’t a surprise. At this point, it’s probably easier to count the A-listers who haven’t grimaced their way through a Marvel paycheck than those who have—although few have been stranded in a movie as meandering or incoherent as Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, in which Henry’s immortal inventor Phastos tearfully shouldered the blame for Hiroshima (an even weirder character beat to assign to the MCU’s first openly gay superhero). Big-budget paydays like Eternals and Bullet Train are ostensibly Henry’s reward for his superlative character work in more grown-up films. In 2018, the Yale-trained actor, who broke through on Broadway as the menacing, trigger-happy warlord General Butt-Fucking Naked in the original cast of The Book of Mormon (here he is on the Tonys), appeared in two significant American movies by Oscar-winning Black filmmakers. He was stoic and sinister as a corrupt, upwardly mobile Chicago politician in Steve McQueen’s thriller Widows and achingly vulnerable as a trauma-stricken parolee in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk; the performances are studies in contrast linked by a common denominator of flawed, recognizable humanity.
Henry’s performance in Beale Street is especially impressive, an expansive character study etched in intimate miniature. First encountered smiling beatifically as he strides through a sun-dappled New York afternoon, his Daniel Carty—an old friend of protagonist Fonny (Stephan James)—has an easy, relaxed gait. Jenkins’s spectacular use of slow motion renders his joy at encountering his pal indelible. But once he’s seated in Fonny’s apartment and starts opening up about time in jail, it’s like his life force starts draining in real time. “Some of the things I’ve seen …” Daniel says, somehow looking away and inward at the same time, like he’s replaying his sentence’s horrors in his mind’s eye. It’s a small part in terms of screen time, but it casts a shadow over the remainder of the film. When Fonny ends up railroaded into prison, his face begins to resemble Daniel’s haunted countenance, as if Henry’s face—his deep-set eyes, his drawn features, his shell shock—were being somehow superimposed over top.
In theory, Causeway is a comeback vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, an actress whose CV has been noticeably sparse since her own foray into superhero silliness ended with 2019’s Dark Phoenix. In 2021, Lawrence showed solid comic chops as Don’t Look Up’s disgruntled Chicken Little figure, selling both the character’s gawky awkwardness and descent into stoner culture. In a movie filled with actors stylizing themselves into cartoons, she kept it real. Bruised authenticity is one of Lawrence’s sweet spots, and one way to look at Causeway—which the actress produced through her company Excellent Cadaver—is as an attempt to reconnect with her indie roots. Owing partially to her recent lack of exposure, Lawrence does something hard for a star of her magnitude: She disappears into a role that is itself defined by a kind of self-effacing anonymity. Returning home to New Orleans after a tour of duty in Afghanistan as an Army engineer, Lawrence’s Lynsey doesn’t expect a hero’s welcome, probably because she can barely recognize herself: A brain injury sustained in a bomb attack has left her physically and psychically weakened and in need of significant resources she cannot afford. Lacking money or prospects, she wants to prove that she’s able enough to go back overseas, a plan that the few people in her life see as a death wish. Not only does Lawrence believably inhabit Lynsey’s damaged body and mind, but she conveys the frustration of a strong, capable, and stubbornly self-sufficient character coming to terms with her own diminishment. Whether braving physiotherapy sessions or scribbling to-do lists to jog her stalling memory, she has the look of somebody who resents having to go through the motions.
Causeway has three screenwriters, one of whom is the acclaimed and polarizing novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, whose 2018 bestseller, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, simultaneously satirized and wallowed in the language and psychology of clinical depression. It’s possible to sense Moshfegh’s hand in some of the protagonist’s early torpor (and Lawrence’s ornery resignation), but the movie snaps awake once Henry shows up as James, a one-legged auto body shop owner who spots the problems with Lynsey’s busted truck in about two seconds flat and moves on to sizing up his client with a mix of curiosity, sympathy, and tentative desire.
In narrative terms, Lynsey’s meeting with James couldn’t be more mechanical, and their subsequent friendship is carefully blueprinted by the filmmakers at every step. We know that these two broken people are going to swap stories, search their souls, make each other whole again. Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and if there’s something staid and old-fashioned about how assiduously Causeway stays the course, the lack of superfluous digression or flashy stylistic fireworks is also admirable. Neugebauer is a stage director who’s helmed some heavy-duty Broadway plays, including shows written by titans like Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, and Kenneth Lonergan, and she has the patience to let moments play out without cutting or pushing the camera around. But then, with an actor as good as Henry, you don’t have to do much. James’s mid-film monologue about how he lost his leg—among other things—in a car crash is delivered with the halting, layered catharsis of a man who’s letting go and holding back at the same time. A similar equilibrium can be felt in smaller moments, like James’s response to Lynsey telling him—not quite out of nowhere, but close enough—that she’s gay; in the flicker of an eye, Henry shows us a thwarted romantic trying not to show anything and, endearingly, not quite getting there.
At a slender 94 minutes, Causeway doesn’t have epic ambitions, and it somewhat trails off after giving its stars their big speeches and moments of revelation. Such modesty shouldn’t be disqualifying when it comes to awards, though, and with apologies to Ke Huy Quan’s wonderfully supple, hugely winning, and by now even-money bid for Best Supporting Actor, Henry’s work in Causeway represents a superior display of technique. As he’s done for much of his career, he’s working with less, taking a role that, on paper, is almost painfully clichéd and imbuing it with the kind of specificity that makes you believe the character will continue to exist after the final fade-out. In the film’s last scene, Lynsey confronts James with a modest proposal of friendship that, for her at least, represents a genuine Hail Mary. Our knowledge that he’s going to receive it takes nothing away from how Henry plays the moment: as an almost imperceptible softening. Causeway isn’t a great movie, but because Henry can’t play a false note, its ending rings true.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.