I write this with the intention of highlighting a film that may have been left behind in the recency bias of creating your top 5 or 10 or 25 or however long of a list you make of your favorite films of the year. While there will be many mentions of Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, and Lady Bird – and those films all deserve it – from a lot of publications, I’d like to focus on a film from earlier in the year that deserves more attention than its gotten. That film is James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, one of my personal favorite films of the year and one of the best I’ve seen this year as well. Heads up, I will be discussing the ending of the film, so beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen it. You can also read my original review for the film here.
Colonel Percival H. Fawcett is one of the great mysteries of exploration. Throughout the early 20th century, he made multiple ventures to the Amazon rainforest to map the region for the Royal Geographic Society (RGS). Over time, he became convinced he had evidence of a lost city from an ancient civilization and devoted all his resources to finding it. In 1925, he and his son went missing in the forest, making it his final voyage to the Amazon. What happened to him has become one of the greatest, most debated questions in history. Based on David Grann’s wonderful non-fiction novel of the same name, Gray’s adaptation seeks to understand what drove Fawcett to this all-consuming search for the unknown.
There is a war raging inside Percy Fawcett. Gray introduces us to Fawcett and his turmoiled mindset effectively in the opening scene. Fawcett and other majors are on a hunt to kill a stag for the gala dinner that evening, and whoever kills the stag will be in high favor. As the hunt races off, the stag runs off into a forested area, and Fawcett doggedly follows. One of the soldiers shouts “Major! There’s no path there!” but Fawcett continues undeterred. He kills the stag, and in a private moment before the rest of the company arrives he has nothing but sorrow on his face. He’s troubled that he had to take this life from nature in order to further his own position.
This battle between guilt and glory is at the center of the film, playing a part in every facet of Fawcett’s existence. He loves his wife Nina for her independence and forward thinking, but regresses to the “a wife’s place is at home” rhetoric when she tells him she wants to come with him to the jungle. He is empathetic towards the indigenous tribes of Amazonia and is against the slave trade that plagues the region, yet he can’t reconcile that his pursuits are their own form of colonialism that pushes forth the empire and slave trade that he resents. Adapting this book should have been impossible, but Gray finds the path by approaching Fawcett as a character study rather than a documentary-like account of what happened.
It helps he has such an excellent cast. This is the best role of Charlie Hunnam’s career, and sadly it will probably be the best role he ever has. Hunnam has been in the awkward position of Hollywood trying to make him a movie star when he just isn’t that type of actor, but here he’s afforded great range and confidence. He just so effectively communicates the internal struggle that Fawcett carries – in his posture, in how he interacts with others. Treasure his performance, we will likely never see one like it again. Sienna Miller has long been a “good actress, bad roles” kind of performer, so it’s great to see her in a really good role this time. She helps Nina rise above the “encouraging spouse” stereotype into a well-rounded character, holding court over those around her in her scenes. The fact that Robert Pattinson is in a movie like this in a supporting role is exemplary of the actor he’s become. I wrote a whole column about how great he has become. He just wants to work with good actors and directors, he doesn’t need the showiest part. His performance as Henry Costin, Fawcett’s right hand man is a humble one, he doesn’t need to try to overtake each scene, he’s just happy to be a part of it all.
The images that Gray conjures up with cinematographer Darius Khondji are just wondrous. Almost each frame belongs on a canvas, making you feel like you’re looking at an old photograph of the wonders of the world. The way they shoot the jungle captures a certain spirituality of nature while contrasting it with the harsh indifference of the jungle. Both the book and the film give you the feeling of being in the Amazon rainforest, like all the bugs and sickness are right there with you. This film must have been hell to make, and you can feel the fortitude it took in each shot. There isn’t a frame that doesn’t feel worth it.
When thinking about this film, I think about Werner Herzog’s theory regarding the accountant’s truth and the ecstatic truth. The basic understanding of it is that there are two truths, the accountant’s truth – only adhering to strict facts – and the ecstatic truth – the truth that art brings out in the world by employing fictions. Reading the source novel and watching the film is to behold a perfect marriage of the two truths. This is a story that benefits from both the accountants truth and the ecstatic truth. David Grann’s novel is the accountant’s truth, a vast exploration into the history of the Amazon region, Fawcett’s life, all the efforts to locate him after he went missing, and even Grann’s own attempts to recreate the journey Fawcett did to find out what happened. It’s an extensive, dense book that is so well-written you never feel bogged down in all the information Grann is giving you.
If the book is the accountant’s truth, than the movie is the ecstatic truth version of the story. Gray changes much of the information in Grann’s book for the film, but it makes it a better movie somehow because he’s more interested in the story thematically, letting those themes drive the film. For example, in the film Fawcett takes only 3 trips to the jungle, but in actuality he had over a dozen trips to the Amazon in his life. Henry Costin in actuality only traveled with Fawcett in the latter half of his trips, whereas in the film he’s his partner the whole time. In actuality, Fawcett’s son’s best friend also joined them on their final journey, but in the movie it’s just Fawcett and his son. Normally when a film diverts from the facts as much as this does, it doesn’t result in a better film. It results in a fantastic work here because those changes are done in service of pushing to find the ecstatic truth in this story.
We find that ecstatic truth in the final scenes, as Gray puts aside the accountant’s truth in search of thematic and spiritual truths. For those wondering, the most likely version of what actually happened was that Fawcett and his son were killed by a violent tribe after being warned not to go to a certain part of the forest. But as for the film, it could not have a better ending than the one Gray conjures up. Fawcett and his son are captured by an indigenous tribe and await whatever fate is bestowed upon them. Two tribesman discuss that this “…white christian is not one of us.” but also that “…he’s not one of them.” Gray brings back forth Fawcett’s internal battle with that exchange. And it is in this moment that Fawcett finally gains peace. He tells his son that whatever happens to them is meant to happen, and you can see that he is at peace with his demise and finds a sort of comfort in it. They are carried off down a torch-lit pathway through the forest, and that is the last we see of them. Where are they going? Are they being taken to the lost city? It doesn’t matter, what matters is that Fawcett has finally found inner peace. The ecstatic truth is greater than the accountant’s.
In his previous film The Immigrant, James Gray crafted one of the greatest final shots in cinema history. You’ll know it when it you see it. Here he crafts an equally powerful final image. Nina has just met with the head of the RGS where she is holding out hope, however foolishly, that her husband and son are still alive and in the jungle. Earlier in the film, Fawcett showed a compass to the head of the RGS and told him he would send it when they reached Z to signify they made it, joking he might not want to return. Nina has obtained that compass and reveals it, reinforcing Gray’s version of events where Fawcett found peace regardless of what happened. As she leaves, the wondrous final shot occurs, she goes down a flight of stairs and turns and walks straight into the jungle. She will never stop searching, and I hope Gray never stops searching either.
It’s like the poem “The Explorer” by Rudyard Kipling that Nina gifts to Percy:
“There’s no sense in going further – it’s the edge of cultivation,”
So they said, and I believed it – broke my land and sowed my crop-
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop
Til a voice, as bad as conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting whisper, day and night repeated – so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges-”
“Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
James Gray found it.