Much of The Lost City of Z is genuinely gripping, in part because the hardships and horrors it depicts are presented so matter-of-factly. A tribe of hostile natives, who at first try to butcher the explorers, are subdued after Fawcett convinces his party to carol them with “Soldiers of the Queen.” Moments later, the white men are being invited into the village to dine on human flesh and being given travel advice.
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The setting of the new James Gray film, The Lost City of Z, is an odd one for the director: the jungle. Starting with his first film, Little Odessa (1994), Gray’s habitat of choice has always been Brooklyn. The Immigrant (2013) made it all the way to Central Park, but even that film clung mostly to the city’s crowded Eastern-European tenements. Gray’s been a keen observer of urban topography, setting scenes on rooftops and in rail yards, lovingly photographing the paint-peeling walls of stairwells and the sooty undersides of bridges. His favorite color is that shade of sepia that one sees on the edges of old photographs. And so it’s strange to find him photographing regions that are, well, so green, first Ireland and then the Amazonian rainforest.
The Lost City of Z, based on the book by New Yorker author David Grann, tells the real-life story of Percival Fawcett, a British army officer-cum-explorer who, between 1906 and 1925, led a series of expeditions into the South American jungle in search of a lost city he called “Zed,” or “Z.” With little hope for advancement in the military (“He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” sighs one superior), Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) agrees to undertake a dangerous assignment: to map the uncharted border between Bolivia and Brazil. Accompanying him on this journey is Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, hiding behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a Viking-like thatch of facial hair). Though Costin, ominously, shows up to their first meeting drunk, he turns out to be Fawcett’s most dependable companion, putting a bullet through the ear of a would-be mutineer and stoically hiding the wounds on his body caused by vampire bats. Waiting back at home is Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), a proto-feminist who complains about being restricted to the upper gallery in the Royal Geographical Society and, while preparing for a dinner party, announces her wish to exchange her dress for a pair of pants. Like a good Edwardian wife, though, she dutifully endures her husband’s many absences, a tear silently sliding down her nose as he plans another tropical adventure.
Fawcett’s decision to leave her and risk the perils of the Amazon a second time is prompted by his discovery, at the end of his first expedition, of shards of pottery and blocks of statuary deep in the rainforest, which he concludes must be the remnants of a lost city. The hidebound, Eurocentric scholars at the Royal Geographical Society deride this as an El Dorado-like fantasy, convinced that jungle primitives were incapable of building such a metropolis. Fawcett, though, has found his mission, one that will drive him for the rest of the movie. In the beginning, he sought to gain advancement by flattering his superiors. Now he defies them, determined to find the city and prove them wrong.
The film, perhaps inevitably, has echoes of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog’s jungle films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The explorers encounter cannibals, piranhas, bleached skulls, arrows that coming flying out of the foliage without warning, and an opera in the middle of the rainforest. Charlie Hunnam, likewise, has some of the fiery intensity that Klaus Kinski brought to his collaborations with Herzog, the kind that burns behind his eyes even while the rest of his face remains manfully calm. But Gray is a much more subdued filmmaker than Herzog, as fascinated by the stately interiors of candlelit homes as he is by seeing a human carcass cooked over an open flame. Where another filmmaker would have plunged right into the green hell of the jungle, he lingers in the quiet English countryside, allowing scenes to dawdle in sunlit meadows and on grassy downs. “Ain’t nobody comes back from up there,” Fawcett is told before his first journey upriver, and yet he does come back, only to go out again and, again, return. It’s an adventure movie that’s as concerned with the time between adventures as with the adventuring.
The movie, as a result, unfolds episodically, rendering some parts of Fawcett’s story in exquisite detail while sketching others in only the faintest of outlines. Much time is spent on the chaos caused by James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a corpulent coward who drags down the second expedition by stealing supplies, injuring himself, and then going off his head, forcing Fawcett to give him their only remaining mule to travel to safety. When they return to England, the lost city still undiscovered, Murray vows to ruin Fawcett’s reputation. Yet, almost as soon as the threat is made it vanishes, along with Murray, from the story.
Much less time is spent filling in the details of Fawcett’s relationship with his son Jack (Tom Holland). “Are you my father?” the boy asks, after the explorer returns from his first trip to South America. Later, Jack berates Fawcett for going off to serve in World War l and, when Fawcett is wounded – temporarily blinded by chlorine gas – shows him little regard. And yet the years-long breach is healed almost instantly with a bedside embrace and a few tears. The next thing we know, they’re chummily planning yet another trip to the jungle, this time together. Such elisions, of course, are only natural in a film that leaps and bounds over years, and yet one feels that were it developed a bit more, the father-son relationship might have been the thread that tied Fawcett’s meandering story together. Had Steven Spielberg directed the film, this would have been the central focus of the movie: the heart of darkness residing not deep in the Amazon but within a father’s own breast, awaiting a child’s love to get it beating again. What kind of father, after all, makes his untested, twenty-two-year-old son his only companion when traveling into a region full of poisonous snakes, man-eating fish, and diseases that induce the vomiting of blood? The film prefers not to dwell too long on such thoughts.
And yet much of the movie is genuinely gripping, in part because the hardships and horrors it depicts are presented so matter-of-factly. A tribe of hostile natives, who at first try to butcher the explorers, are subdued after Fawcett convinces his party to carol them with “Soldiers of the Queen.” Moments later, the white men are being invited into the village to dine on human flesh and being given travel advice. Whereas Apocalypse Now increasingly drifted into implausibility the farther its protagonist traveled upriver, The Lost City of Z always keeps its grip on reality. When Fawcett makes his final journey to the Amazon with Jack, the opera house he visited on his first trip is gone, suggesting both that the jungle devours all cities and that it becomes less surreal the more you get to know it. If anything, the film’s ending could have used a bit more imagination. Since Fawcett and his son never emerged from the jungle, Gray is free to speculate about the events that led to their disappearance. The conclusion he chooses is curiously anticlimactic, arriving abruptly but with none of the cathartic violence that he uses to end Little Odessa, The Yards (2000), and We Own the Night (2007). And yet, restrained as it is, it doesn’t quite achieve the quiet finality that Gray brought to Two Lovers (2008), which remains his best film to date. That movie also closes with a tender exchange of glances between a parent and child, but in that case the meeting of eyes reveals that the protagonist’s journey truly has ended. It’s easy to lose your way in the jungle.