Throughout the early 20th century, Col. Percival H. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) made multiple failed ventures into the Amazon rainforest in search of a lost city from an ancient civilization. In 1925 he and his son went missing, making it his final voyage. The opening shows us quite effortlessly everything we need to know about Col. Percival Fawcett. He joins a hunting party for a deer with other army officers, the victor being the one to kill the meal for a royal gala that evening. As they chase their prey on horseback, Fawcett breaks off to head through a forest area. Another officer yells in caution that there is no path there. Fawcett ignores him, wrestles through the brush and shoots the deer. As he approaches his conquest, there appears to be a look of guilt washing over him that he had to take a life to better his own. It’s this sort of duality that defines and conflicts Fawcett, his eternal drive for adventure and glory clashing with his empathy for the way it damages and destroys the world around him.
There are other instances in which this battle in his soul arises. He encourages and loves his wife for her independence and shares in her forward-thinking ways, yet reverts to a baser prejudice when she proposes to join him on an expedition, urging that her place is in the home raising the children. Fawcett has a disgust for the slave trade being pushed on the indigenous tribes of the Amazon and strives to empathize and connect with them, yet can never rest with the fact that his quest furthers the very colonialism they suffer under. It’s this central conflict between empathy and glory that drives this latest wonder from James Gray.
I’ve only now seen two of his films, but I can still confidently say that James Gray is one of American cinema’s best kept secrets. I’ve seen enough. I can’t watch this film and The Immigrant and not know that I’m seeing something special. The Immigrant contains – no hyperbole – one of the greatest final shots in the history of cinema. The fact that The Immigrant was buried by Harvey Weinstein as a power play is a crime. Gray has emerged from the nasty experience with his grandest, most ambitious work yet, and certainly one of the most significant cinematic experiences of the year. The Lost City of Z demands to be seen on the biggest cinematic scale you can find.
There isn’t a lacking turn in this cast. This may be the best role Charlie Hunnam ever gets. He’s one of those actors that is in that uneasy “Let’s make him a Hollywood leading man and see if it sticks” phase following his tenure on Sons of Anarchy. He was game for more giddy roles with Guillermo del Toro in Pacific Rimand Crimson Peak, but really proves his mettle here. I talked about the central conflict of Fawcett, and that’s what Hunnam so effortlessly communicates here. You can feel him in turmoil with himself in each scene, and it’s not something Hunnam has to oversell. It’s in his poise, in his mannerisms, how he regards others around him. It’s his most committed work to date, and I pray we get more opportunities to see him like this.
Sienna Miller is frequently relegated to “good actress, bad roles” territory, so it’s nice to finally see a film that knows what she can do. She really helps the character of Nina rise above conventions into a well rounded character, taking charge of each scene she’s in with pure magnetism and emotion. This role could have been dangerously regressive if not for her presence. Tom Holland is developing nicely with a brief role here as Fawcett’s son, and I hope he finds more time for films like this in between his web-slinging movies.
It always gives me a delight to think of the remarkable renaissance and afterlife that Robert Pattinson (and Kristen Stewart as well) have had since the Twilight films. He’s since curved more Hollywood fare in an effort to work with multiple arthouse auteurs like Cronenberg, Herzog, The Safdie Brothers, Anton Corbijn, Brady Corbet, David Michôd – and now James Gray. He turns in a remarkably humble performance as Henry Costin, Fawcett’s right hand man on his expeditions. He’s seemingly content in just being a part of the film, which is exemplary of the type of remarkable performer he’s become.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography is as masterful as you expect from him. There’s rare a frame in this film that doesn’t look like it belongs on canvas. He manages to capture the inherent spirituality of nature as well as it’s cruel indifference to humanity. His imagery goes a long way in providing a grand, eloquent and poetic feel to the film. I don’t know what the budget was, but whatever it was, they made the most of it. The production design is top notch, creating WWI battlefields and trenches with stunning realism and immediacy. They feel just as real and immediate as the jungles they shot most of the film in.
I have not read the book by David Grann this was adapted from (though I have bought a copy since to start soon). I don’t know if even a fraction of the movie’s answer to Fawcett’s final moments or what comes after is in the book, or can be verified by any historical text. But I don’t care. This movie couldn’t have had a better resolution than the one Gray conjures. The final sequences of the film are absolutely mystifying. They transcend literalization and fact and unearth thematic and spiritual truths. Fawcett seems to find some sort of peace in his demise, reconciling his conflicted nature seemingly with a feeling that he deserves this, and finds comfort in this cosmic fate To be Herzog-ian, the ecstatic truth is of far greater value than the accountant’s truth. It’s been days since I watched this film, and I can’t stop thinking about the beauty and grace of it all. I don’t want to discuss it too much for fear of diluting the experience of watching it in the theater not knowing what’s coming. I’m going to be pondering the final shot of this film for a long time. I don’t know quite what it means, and I’m okay with that. It’s a beguiling, ambiguous and challenging image. It speaks to the never-ending search for closure that will continue to elude us. May James Gray never stop searching.