'The Lost City of Z'
‘The Lost City of Z’ seemingly promises many things that we come to expect from summertime movie spectacle. It’s about an adventurer traveling deep into the jungle, uncovering cannibals, fighting off piranha attacks, and dipping into war, all the while in search of something to add meaning to life.
Based on the biography of obsessive British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film could have easily devolved into something so conventional that it would barely be worth any attention. Thanks to the focus of the consistently underrated filmmaker James Gray (‘The Yards’, ‘The Immigrant’), ‘The Lost City of Z’ grows more thematically ambitious and stylistically abstract as it moves on, leading to a film both grand in scale and experimental in purpose.
‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘Pacific Rim’ star Charlie Hunnam takes up the role of Fawcett. He’s introduced in the midst of a fox hunt. He’s been born into a specific role in British society, but outright rejects that station. Instead, he has a dream of descending deep into the Amazon jungle and discovering a city and culture more advanced than Western civilization.
A map-making job involving a heavily costumed Robert Pattinson gives Fawcett his first taste of adventure, leaving behind his wife (Sienna Miller) and descending into an expedition that feels more horrific than enthralling. His men vomit black blood while arrows fly past their heads. Seemingly everything goes wrong in this tortuous trek, including the fact that Fawcett never finds the city of his quest. But he now has a taste of his destiny and it consumes his life. He lives in a one-sided feuding relationship with his wife. He dreams of the jungle even on the battlegrounds of World War I. He returns and returns again. Eventually, enough time passes that his son (Tom Holland) joins him on his latest quest. Without going into spoiler territory it should be noted that the last thing known about the real Percy Fawcett is that he never returned.
Gray’s film has quite a bit going on, not the least of which is cinematic spectacle on a scale that the talented director had never previously explored. On a certain level, it’s a Don Quixote tale of a man chasing impossible dreams he will never achieve. It’s also a critique of societal structures that impose identities on those who don’t want them (even touching into early feminism as Fawcett and his wife argue over the equality of their relationship). There’s some critique of colonialism. Gray toys with images of exoticism exploited by Hollywood for years, but uses it with a sense of purpose.
The film is a historical epic executed with an anthropologist’s attention to detail. It has action. It has romance. It has war. It has pain. It has excitement. But above all else, it’s a slow-burn dive into obsessive madness as a driven man forsakes all else for an adventure that never feels particularly heroic, and the film becomes vividly unhinged along with him.
Those are quite a few themes for a single film to maintain. While ‘The Lost City of Z’ is never remotely close to boring, it does often buckle under its own massive ambition and becomes somewhat chaotic. Fortunately, that’s also kind of the point of Gray’s take on this material. It’s hard to say if that’s a flaw of over-ambition or an audience-challenging design.
On a technical level, the film is remarkable. Teaming up with ‘Se7en’ cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray takes on familiar images from a new perspective. The movie has few blinding beauty shots or Terrence Malick-like representations of nature as a sort of holy magic. These jungles are nightmarishly foreboding, and the often frantic camerawork can make the treks resemble hallucinatory nightmares. The visual language is in place from the start, but grows as the protagonist deteriorates.
Gray is playing in a realm that has been tackled by such masters as Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola, yet finds his own language to show nature’s magic and deliberately sets that in contrast to the more conventionally pretty and painterly ways he shows England. Performances are predictably strong as Gray has always had a way with actors. He gives the actors space to create their own eccentric voices within his chaotic visual template. However, most fade to the back behind Hunnam and the visuals. That makes sense. It’s a reflection of how Fawcett saw the world and lived his life.
Ultimately, ‘The Lost City of Z’ is a difficult film to describe and analyze, which is intended as a compliment as much as a critique. The movie has haunting passages that will stay with me for quite some time, deeper moments destined for rumination, and sequences that are the wrong kind of head-scratchers. It will likely reveal its true colors on subsequent viewings, for good or ill.
James Gray is growing with each passing film into a major voice in American film. In ‘The Lost City of Z’, he’s crafted an epic that slowly reveals itself over the passing of long swaths of time and many diverse locations. It’s an epic for the art houses, with scale and ambition to match the far less challenging blockbuster entertainment clogging up multiplexes elsewhere. This is brilliant summer movie counterprogramming and shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle like so many of Gray’s films have before. He’s an unassuming yet ambitious artist who too often falls through the cracks. Despite its flaws, the grand vision of ‘The Lost City of Z’ is too ambitious to easily ignore.