Pavement, Apple TV+’s new awards season hopeful, isn’t a particularly religious film. The only overt nod to faith came from a single cross hanging from a rear-view mirror.
But Jennifer Lawrence’s latest film is still filled with spiritual themes: sin and redemption; pain and hope; hello and second chance. And in the middle of it all flows a powerful symbol: water.
The film’s use of water is particularly interesting, given that its main protagonist, Lynsey (played by Lawrence), has just returned from Afghanistan, a country not really known for it. Overall, it’s fairly dry and, for the American soldiers serving there, unhospitable.
But Lynsey found a home there. She loves the army. She enjoyed serving alongside and spending time with her fellow soldiers. And she would still be there if an IED hadn’t blown her vehicle up high.
Physically, the explosion left Lynsey virtually intact. But his brain suffered extreme trauma. When she returns to the United States, she can’t even walk. She can barely communicate. His first task is to really get his brain and body back on good terms. She is trained and cared for by a caring nurse (Sharon, played by Jayne Houdyshell), who helps Lynsey through the worst of her problems. But Sharon tells her she has a lot of work ahead of her. She’s not healed, not even close. But to finish the job, Lynsey will have to go “home”, to a place practically surrounded by water. New Orleans.
(Quick caveat: This R-rated movie also contains a lot of problematic content. Check out my review of Pavement to see if it’s navigable for you. Also, we’re going to be getting into minor spoiler territory, by the way, so if you haven’t seen Pavement and want, return to this column after you’ve done so.)
Water, water, everywhere
We all know that water is essential for life. We are mainly made up of the stuff. Without it, crops wither and livestock die and we all shrivel up. The writers of the Bible, who themselves lived in fairly arid lands, knew better than anyone how important water is. In fact, it is sometimes used as a symbol of life itself.
It is also often a divine instrument of destruction. Just ask Noah. Just ask all of Pharaoh’s charioteers when they’ll be taken to the Red Sea. But even here we see water as not only destructive, but also purifying, wiping the dirt from the world and paving the way for a better and brighter future.
The beautifully symbolic act of baptism combines all of these elements. It is an act of destruction. (“We were therefore buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes in part in Romans 6:4.) It is an act of cleansing. (“Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name,” we read in Acts 22:16.) And it is a symbolic act of resurrection – dying to your old life, and being resurrected, like Paul again written in Romans, “new life”.
In the first stanzas of Pavement, New Orleans water seems to be more of a destructive force. And maybe the framing was even intentional: as a journalist, I covered some of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as it swept across the southern United States in 2005. It killed nearly 2,000 people in New Orleans alone, and I remember driving through town a few days later. —water still floods the streets.
Those floodwaters are long gone by the time Lynsey returns, of course. But it’s still not a place she voluntarily returns to: it’s a place she is forced to return to. She tells her new friend, an auto mechanic named James, that she and her brother were “trapped” in their family home. “I’m the only one who made it,” she said. You can almost imagine the house as an underwater cage that, like Houdini, Lynsey managed to escape from.
Now she is back. And she is desperate to escape again, before her family drags her underground.
But James (Brian Tyree Henry) carries his own trauma. The mechanic is missing a leg and James finally tells Lynsey how. He and a few others were crossing the causeway (essentially a 24-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain) when they crashed. He says his leg was so mangled he could stare at the sole of his shoe. And he lost more than his leg.
But even with all that pain associated with water, Pavement quickly transforms it into a symbol of healing. Even in the opening moments of the film, we see Lynsey in the shower, being slowly mopped up by Sharon, emphasizing Lynsey’s vulnerability and Sharon’s kind, slow care.
When Lynsey returns to New Orleans, she lands a job cleaning pools. I love how director Lila Neugebauer introduces us to this new side of Lynsey’s life. About the first thing we see is a dirty drain, and Lynsey’s new boss tells her how gross those drains can be and all they say about the owner. This is the purifying aspect of water, not just physical dirt, but also emotional sins and baggage.
It’s also worth noting that when we first see Lynsey at work, she’s literally cleaning pools with a 10-foot, high, dry pole. Yes, admittedly, pool cleaners don’t often dive into pools themselves to do their job. But it’s still a powerful visual for the viewer: it’s almost as if she doesn’t want to wade through the water – to cleanse not only the mental and emotional trauma she suffered in Afghanistan, but also the trauma she suffered. she suffered in New Orleans. She doesn’t want to get too close.
But as the film progresses, Lynsey finds herself more and more in the water, and each scene comes with the spice of transformation.
It’s not always a comfortable transformation, admittedly. When she takes her first tip from a customer’s pool, she immerses herself for a while before rising to the surface, almost panicked. But we also see signs of healing. For most of the film, Lynsey keeps her irresponsible mother at bay. It’s only when they spend some time together in a small paddling pool sipping margaritas that they truly feel like family. And when Lynsey’s mom leaves the pool to talk on the phone, it’s almost as if getting out of the water breaks those bonds again.
But when Lynsey invites James to swim with her one night, the pool becomes almost a sacred space. James tells the whole story of the Causeway accident, a story filled with shame and pain. The pool becomes a confessional, holy water. And for a moment, it’s like James begins the process of erasing his guilt. It’s as if the movie tells us that James, at least, goes through some sort of secular baptism. All that baggage, all that sin is being wiped away, ending up in the filthy sewers of the swimming pool.
Then Lynsey fouls into space with an error. And in another symbolically resonant move, James climbs out of the water, gets dressed, then accuses Lynsey of ignoring her own baggage. How she would rather return to Afghanistan than engage in the hard work of mending relationships. How she would rather flee than face her own local trauma. How she treats everyone like “they let you down instead of the other way around”.
She returns home and, once again, enters the water. This time it’s just a puddle in his bathtub. She’s sitting in it in her underwear, shaking and broken. It conveys everything we need to know at the time: how bad she feels for seemingly losing her friendship with James; how his words stung her. And in a way, this pitiful scene also feels like a baptism. She dies there a little. But it also finds a new life.
Soon after, Lynsey visits her brother in prison – something she’s never done before, it seems. She visits James and tries to work things out with him. She decides not to return to Afghanistan. Lynsey knows she has more to heal: heal from her brain injury, yes, but also heal other wounds and help others heal.
She’s a new person at the end of the film – a little closer, I think, to the person God would have her be. She is less selfish, more generous. And although she knows she still has a lot of work ahead of her – healing and penance can go hand in hand – Lynsey is off to a good start.
The purpose of the Lake Pontchartrain causeway is pretty obvious: it’s a bridge that takes you from place to place – to move people to where they are, to where they want to go. In Causeway, both Lynsey and James are on a journey, moving from where they are to where they want to go. But here, they don’t go over water to get there: they cross.