As talk of another Oscar grows for her performance in this year’s Causeway, we rate the versatile actor’s finest work
Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawrence had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in this low-budget indie about young people drifting around Los Angeles, trying to make it. The film features minor players Willa Holland, Vinessa Shaw, Fiona Dourif and Erik Smith, who plays a singer-songwriter and covers Ricky Nelson’s hit Garden Party – the one about how you can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself. Lawrence features in a single scene with other young women listlessly bitching in a coffee shop: she pads her background part by trying and apparently failing to light a cigarette.
Here is a real oddity: a stilted psycho-melodrama which might in an earlier age have featured Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. It was considered all but unreleasable when it was made in 2007, but was put out after Lawrence’s Oscar triumph six years later in Silver Linings Playbook, purely on the strength of the teenage Lawrence’s brief appearance. She (fleetingly) plays the younger version of Rosamund Pike’s character Zoe, an up-and-coming actor who is desperately competitive with her mother, played by Lena Olin, who is herself a retired movie star with a mysterious and disturbing past.
Lawrence made a respectful and heartfelt appearance in this documentary about the young actor Anton Yelchin, her co-star in Like Crazy and The Beaver, who died in 2016 due to a bizarre accident involving his malfunctioning car. The accident happened just as the manufacturer’s recall notice was being sent out. Lawrence’s tribute to this lost romantic hero of American cinema is poignant and touching.
Here is another shelved picture that was hastily retrieved from obscurity after Lawrence made it big; it was completed in 2010 but rushed into cinemas in 2012. It’s a ropey psychological thriller (whose title appears to ape The Last House on the Left) that was much mocked at the time for its social media hashtag #HATES, but it starred Lawrence as Elissa, a teenager who moves into a new house with her divorced mother, played by Elisabeth Shue. They discover that a house on their street was the site of a grisly murder – a teenager killed his parents and vanished – and Elissa finds herself falling for the culprit’s brother. Lawrence does her best with this substandard material.
Mel Gibson gives an entirely insufferable, hammy and self-satisfied performance in this comedy as Walter, a man going through a midlife breakdown who discovers that he can only communicate via a hand-puppet of a beaver that he has found in the rubbish. Lawrence is at least reasonably interesting as the young high-schooler Norah who falls for Walter’s shy son, Porter, played by Yelchin. Their relationship mirrors Walter’s ventriloquist nightmare: Norah asks Porter to ghostwrite her valedictorian speech.
Lawrence lends great presence and maturity to this contrived mystery drama from screenwriter turned director Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of Babel and 21 Grams. Lawrence plays Mariana, a teen whose mother, played by Kim Basinger, is having a passionate affair with a man whose son is to have a relationship with Mariana. This fateful quartet are also connected with a restaurant manager played by Charlize Theron, a character whose link with Mariana is to provide the film’s preposterous twist. Again: perhaps not brilliant, but Lawrence’s confidence and style are already beginning to make themselves felt.
Adam McKay’s unrelaxed and strident satire, metaphorically directed at climate crisis inaction, turned out to be the comedy for people who don’t like comedies, and whose commitment to the environment is limited to attacking the film’s critics. But Lawrence does at least give a good performance in it: she is astronomy student Kate Dibiasky who is the first to see that a giant comet is due to hit Earth in six months’ time and wipe out all human life. So she and her thesis adviser Dr Randall Mindy, capably enough played by Leonardo DiCaprio, go on a desperate tour of TV talkshows, trying to convince people that the end is nigh. Lawrence brings a fierce and trenchant commitment.
Actor turned director Lori Petty gave audiences a gruellingly autobiographical movie about her own traumatised upbringing. The avatar for her troubled self is Jennifer Lawrence as Agnes, a bright idealistic teen, very protective of her two younger sisters; they are all living in a chaotic house in which their mother (Selma Blair) is a troubled coke-abusing soul who has sex with men for money and whose pimp inevitably begins to make sinister advances on Agnes herself. This is probably the movie in which Lawrence really began to demonstrate her star quality and her maturity.
The sci-fi romance that Lawrence made with then-emerging star Chris “Parks and Recreation” Pratt was considered a bit of a dud by many, and in truth a satisfactory ending is not forthcoming. But Lawrence delivers an authentic superstar performance in a high-gloss, high-budget Hollywood property. Pratt is Jim, a regular guy who is emigrating from Earth to a distant planet in a vast passenger ship; the journey takes more than 100 years, so he is in a hibernation pod like everyone else. But then a bash from a meteor-shower jolts open his pod and poor Jim wanders the ship knowing there is 90 years to go; he can’t rehibernate and will grow old and die on this ship, utterly alone. Unless he accidentally-on-purpose cracks open someone else’s pod – and the sleeping beauty he chooses is Aurora, played by Lawrence. They are now weirdly isolated lovers in this brave new world.
Susanne Bier’s flawed historical drama was much misunderstood and underrated at the time, and it became yet another Lawrence film which was initially shelved for a while, although this one was in fact made in the very midst of Lawrence’s huge popularity. Her Serena (ironically named) is a poor but proud young woman in depression-era North Carolina; her dazzling beauty entrances a young entrepreneur played by Bradley Cooper who owns a lucrative but exploitative logging business, and their marriage is to lead to disaster. The film isn’t perfect, but Lawrence’s performance is excellent: she isn’t simply required to inhabit a role of soupy honesty and goodness, but a fierce, bladed personality.
Lawrence may well have thought that someone of her standing deserved a kickass action thriller to go with her existing appearances in superhero and YA adventure franchises. Red Sparrow fitted the bill: an entirely preposterous but undoubtedly edgy movie which delivers the excitement. Lawrence plays Dominika, a Russian dancer at the Bolshoi who has to quit dancing due to injury and finds herself drawn into an alternative career: a secret special forces operative trained in assassination, martial arts and sexual seduction. It’s very OTT stuff, violent and raunchy; and Lawrence has the chops for it.
There has been excitable talk about Lawrence getting another Oscar for this awards-bait movie. She undoubtedly gives a very good, very well-intended performance, though the film wants to have its cake and eat it. Causeway aspires to the seriousness of a film about brain-injury, it aims to have its star be congratulated for her courage in depicting someone supposedly so afflicted – and yet it wants her to look attractive most of the time, and so the unsightly symptoms of brain injury basically vanish after the opening scenes. Lawrence plays Lynsey, a serving US soldier sent back to her home town of New Orleans after being injured by a roadside bomb. She is keen to get better and even redeploy, and has a tender new friendship with a local guy, the always excellent Brian Tyree Henry. Lawrence is fine; the film is glib.
Sign up to Film Weekly
Take a front seat at the cinema with our weekly email filled with all the latest news and all the movie action that matters
A rare instance of Lawrence, in her movie star prime, blossoming in a supporting role. Yelchin and Felicity Jones play Jacob and Anna, an American guy and a visiting British student in LA, who have a summer romance. When Anna’s visa expires, she illegally stays on, gets caught and is sent back to Britain. For various reasons, he can’t join her and so these star-crossed, Atlantic-separated lovers each begin a new chapter of loneliness; Lawrence plays Sam, a young woman who falls for Jacob and begins a relationship with him. Discreetly, unobtrusively, Lawrence shows how her character, though an unsympathetic “other woman”, is in fact entirely plausible as Jacob’s girlfriend, someone who can’t be blamed for what happened before she arrived on the scene. The role shows her talent for unvarnished ordinariness.
Fox’s X-Men series, technically a prequel tetralogy to the original X-Men films, featured the younger incarnation of Raven Darkhölme, or Mystique, a mermaidy figure of blue skin and red hair who can shapeshift into any person she wants – Lawrence played her quasi-nakedness with an insouciantly alien type of sexuality. The part precluded the earth-toned naturality that made Lawrence a star but she certainly carried off its exotic strangeness.
7.4 X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
Here is where the X-Men franchise pretty much fizzled out, and there wasn’t much by way of storyline for Lawrence’s character Raven, the film being more concerned with Jean Grey; but it is Raven who denounces the sexism of calling their band the “X-Men” especially as it is the X-women who are saving everyone’s skin.
7.3 X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
The third X-Men prequel movie is set in the 1980s, and again there isn’t that much for Raven to do, other than hide out in East Berlin, where she discovers another mutant: Nightcrawler, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.
7.2 X-Men: First Class (2011)
This was the opening movie of the prequel series, set in the 1960s, when the ostensible youth of the characters was supposed to be important; Raven’s ultramarine appearance has the shock of the new. She has a kind of sibling relationship with Xavier, played by James McAvoy.
7.1 X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
This is a weird time-bending alt-reality film set in a freaky version of the 1970s: it is the best of the series and Lawrence does her best superhero work in it, although she doesn’t feature in the film’s iconic slo-mo sequence in which Evan Peters’s Quicksilver dashes around catching bullets to the accompaniment of Jim Croce’s 70s ballad Time in a Bottle. But Raven has a dramatic and sensational scene in which she attempts to assassinate an anti-mutant scientist at the Paris peace conference.
David O Russell – whose collaborations with Lawrence made her a prestige player – gave her a huge role in this strange, dreamy and intriguing film, which unspools like a two-hour voiceover montage. It is inspired by the real-life story of single mom Joy Mangano who got rich in the 1990s through selling the self-wringing mop she had invented on the QVC home shopping channel. It is not a wacky hustle movie or a satire; Joy is not there to be laughed at and instead her story is presented as something close to a Lynchian reverie. It is a very curious and arresting film and Lawrence dominates it with ease, getting her fourth Oscar nomination.
Based on the dystopian young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, this was the megahit franchise that made Lawrence a colossal star. She played Katniss Everdeen, the young woman forced to take part in a violent bread-and-circuses reality TV show run by a totalitarian state, and becomes a revolutionary leader. The role of Katniss was perfect for Lawrence’s maturity and the way she could somehow be any age from 18 to 28.
5.4 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)
In its final two movies, The Hunger Games series seemed to be inching towards a kind of superhero property with Katniss morphing into a sleek, black-robed ninja – she is becoming detached from the backstory.
5.3 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)
Here is Katniss’s final confrontation with evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his creepy spinmeister Plutarch Heavensbee – from which role the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is arguably a little detached. And the energy of that ultimate battle gives a surge of energy to the series and to Lawrence personally.
5.2 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Lawrence’s heroine Katniss is dragged back into the nightmare of reality TV life-or-death contests by her tyrannical masters and she is looking more defiant than ever: a postmodern Boudicca.
5.1 The Hunger Games (2012)
The first film was the best, when it still had all of its purely satirical charge to go with the fantasy-adventure; it was a film to be compared to Rollerball or Network, and ironically engaged with the world in which young people really will humiliate themselves for the cynical masters of reality TV. Katniss, with her quiver of arrows, has a heroism which conquers all.
This was the film which got Lawrence her Academy Award for best actress: an event which made television history as she fell over scampering up on stage to get the statuette and then afterwards had a hilariously gobsmacked encounter with Jack Nicholson in the midst of a live interview. Lawrence plays the disturbed widow of a police officer whose boundary issues result in promiscuous sexual encounters: she falls in love with a schoolteacher played by Bradley Cooper who has just been released from psychiatric hospital with bipolar disorder. Their wacky odd-couple romance plays out at full tilt and full volume.
Darren Aronofsky’s fantasy nightmare was an arthouse event-movie provocation – or detonation – which had some critics screeching with indignation. But there is a kind of genius in it, and Aronofsky gave Lawrence a gigantic role of Buñuelian craziness, absurdity, obscenity and purity. Her all-American outdoorsiness and naturalness became consumed by something bizarre, glazed and varnished by extremity, transformed into a monolith of nightmares. It’s not for everyone, but this is extreme and challenging film-making, and Lawrence rose to the occasion – even if some commentators didn’t.
Lawrence gave a glorious performance in this rackety hellzapoppin’ black comedy based on the true story of how FBI agents in the late 1970s – a movie universe of uproarious hairstylings – coerced a notorious New Jersey conman into entrapping corrupt politicians. Christian Bale plays Irv, a self-pitying grifter who finds himself assisting the forces of law and order while Lawrence is tremendous as his highly strung wife Rosalyn, who explodes the microwave and derisively calls it the “science oven”. It’s the kind of wacky comic performance that she isn’t often allowed to do.
Directed by Debra Granik, this is the film that launched Lawrence as a star when she was just 20 and it is still her best performance: a drama that exposed the naturality of her performing style in a film that starts on a note of downbeat realism and then builds to a finale of horror. Lawrence plays Ree, a young woman in Missouri’s Ozark mountains who has to find her runaway father: a violent criminal who has put up their ramshackle property as bail but shows every sign of not showing up for his court date, leaving Ree and the rest of the family in the lurch. She is tempted at one stage by army recruitment and you can see how this determined woman would actually make an excellent soldier (of the sort she plays in Causeway). Lawrence is so good as Ree: smart, purposeful and possessed of real moral courage.
This article was amended on 28 October 2022. An earlier version stated that Lawrence “almost fell over scampering up on stage to get the statuette”. This has been changed to “fell over”.
Causeway is released in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ from 4 November.
Jennifer Lawrence’s best performances – ranked! – The Guardian
As talk of another Oscar grows for her performance in this year’s Causeway, we rate the versatile actor’s finest work