Beyond the Forest
By Nick Pinkerton
The Lost City of Z
Dir. James Gray, U.S./U.K., Amazon Studios
James Gray made his name on a series of films that applied a somber, dignified, and stately style to parochial, working-class subjects, and in this disparity there was a certain tension. It probably seemed pompous to some, certainly pleasurable to others—and I have long counted myself among those who saw something sublime in Gray’s elegantly shooting a civic ceremony with appearances by Keith Hernandez and Allan Houston as though making a bridge-and-tunnel Visconti film. Gray’s sixth feature, The Lost City of Z, is a departure in several respects—it’s his first film set outside of the United States and his first adapted from an outside source, the history/memoir of the same name by David Grann. It is also his first film in which the tension that defined his works seems somewhat to have slackened, where the ceremony of the filmmaking fits its subjects hand in glove.
At the center of the film is Percy Fawcett, a man at ease in a stag hunt or a ballroom, and the real-life subject of Grann’s book—an artilleryman and veteran of World War I whose lasting fame came through a series of expeditions into the Amazon in search of evidence of pre-Columbian civilization in the jungle, concluding with his disappearance in May 1925, on a final trek undertaken in the company of his eldest son, Jack. The dynamic between Percy and the young adult Jack, played by Charlie Hunnam and Tom Holland, becomes central in the film’s final act, but when we first meet Fawcett, stationed in Ireland in 1905, he is preoccupied with another father-son dynamic, for his own late father’s reputation as a wastrel and gambler has consistently scuppered his chances for advancement and glory. “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” is how we hear one old duffer—Murray Melvin of Barry Lyndon fame—put it shortly before disappearing behind closed doors with the bona fide gentlemen as tarnished Fawcett looks from across the room in envy, still second-class in spite of the fact that he’s ostensibly being celebrated for his valor in the morning’s hunt.
This is both more and less of a departure for Gray than it might seem. Familial expectation and duty, and the crushing burden they impose, is a theme which recurs in his films, beginning with the thermonuclear domestic meltdown of Little Odessa (1995) and continuing through the cop dynasty guilt-trip of We Own the Night (2007) and the love triangle of Two Lovers (2008), in which nice Jewish boy Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) exchanges a deal-brokering kiss with the nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw) hand-picked by his parents in front of a wall laden with family photographs. And though Gray’s New York is very far away from the tony clubman’s United Kingdom seen in The Lost City of Z, it has its own haves and have nots, and its own gentrymen: James Caan, living in outer boroughs ducal splendor at his Jamaica Estates manor in The Yards (2000), or Elias Koteas’s Manhattan smoothie with law firm box seats at the Metropolitan Opera in Two Lovers. As for the period setting, Gray’s last film, The Immigrant (2013), set in the swarming Lower East Side of 1921, can be seen as a logical stepping-stone to the still-further-afield locales of The Lost City of Z.
And far afield the film does go. Gray, who adapted Grann’s book himself, builds the film around three separate South American expeditions—a distillation of the seven that Fawcett took, shot on location—and subsequent homecomings, with a brief but memorable parenthesis for service in the trenches of World War I. The first trip begins when he’s summoned to the Royal Geographical Society and assigned to an expedition to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia, which he undertakes with the help of his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), and a native guide who speaks of the existence of ancient city ruins far upriver. The journey is an arduous one, and the party are near starvation when sure-shot Fawcett downs a wild boar, a moment that coincides with his conversion from following orders to fanaticism—while the rest of the group huddle around the life-saving pig carcass, Fawcett looks to a place beyond, where he’s sighted a few fragments of antique pottery, indications that his guide’s stories may be true.
From this moment on the search for what Fawcett dubs, in the English fashion, “The Lost City of Zed,” takes on an absolute primacy in his life. It is more important than sustenance, more important even than the family—wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and a brood of children which grows in size and number through the two decades that the film covers—which he leaves behind at every journey but the last. Here is another core difference between the father-son dynamics in The Lost City of Z and the Gray films that preceded it—while the movies between Little Odessa and Two Lovers were concerned principally with the perspective of the put-upon son, Lost City of Z reckons with the responsibilities of the father, faced with risking the integrity of his family to redeem the honor of the surname. Gray, now a father of three like Fawcett, has spoken of how he approached personalizing the film, finding a parallel between Fawcett’s repeated absences and those of a filmmaker off on his own expeditions, and something like a personal credo for this opinionated, argumentative director appears late in the movie: “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”
The Lost City of Z is beautiful, all the more so for not being beautiful in the obvious ways. Working for the second time with cinematographer Darius Khondji, who also shot The Immigrant, Gray films both jungle and English countryside (actually that of Ulster) with long lenses and a shallow depth-of-field, keeping the drama on a human scale rather than seeking out Fredric Edwin Church landscapes worthy to hang on the mantle. Among the recurring visual devices is a tendency to muss up the distinction between the film’s two hemispheres, finding both civilization in the jungle and the jungle in civilization. The former first appears early on, as Fawcett and Costin emerge from the bush to discover a makeshift theater constructed by a venal rubber baron (a scraggly Franco Nero, as though he’d never left the spaghetti western), on which that quintessential product of European culture, grand opera, is being performed. With each trip upriver, Fawcett is more and more convinced that a great civilization has existed (and still does, in part) among the indigenous “savages,” a conviction reinforced by other world events—the American Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of the Incan estate Machu Picchu in 1911, of which he hears word in the papers, and civilized Europe’s collective suicide attempt in the Great War, in which he participates firsthand. It’s here, during a meeting with a medium who has been smuggled into a British bunker—in a riveting scene that I have on good authority was modeled after an effect in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968)—that Fawcett appears suddenly to be transported into the rain forest, an image mirrored, quite literally, in the film’s mysterious closing shot.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed by Gray’s film sense than while watching The Lost City of Z, though I must confess that it is also the movie of his that has moved me the least. Because I happen to believe a great deal in Gray as an artist, I’ve puzzled through the course of two viewings over why this might be, not overlooking the possibility of personal shortcomings. Is it an inability to jibe with this new maturity—I have been a son, after all, while I have not been a father—or the old story of the auteurist enthusiast thrown the moment that their favorite varies from an accustomed formula, which I can well remember coloring the receptions of such films as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001), Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005)? Was I just in it for the bodegas all along?
With all of this in mind, I cannot quite convince myself that Hunnam does everything that the movie asks of him. His performance is the aspect of the film that works least well and, given his centrality to the movie, this shortcoming is no small matter. It’s not that the actor, probably best known from the FX series Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), is a catastrophe—in fact he holds the screen, cuts a dashing figure in uniform, wears a moustache handsomely, and radiates a sense of inborn conviction and self-confidence—it’s just that he lacks that something more, that glint of real mania, the nitrous boost that the great actors, in whose company I would include Gray’s repeat collaborator Joaquin Phoenix, have. (This being said, he is almost certainly an improvement on Benedict Cumberbatch, whom he replaced at something like the eleventh hour.) He and Miller develop a kind of decorous tenderness in their scenes together, but it’s Christopher Spelman’s sweet, plaintive score that puts in much of the emotional heavy lifting, and when compared to another film that spends a great deal of time with Miller waiting fretfully at the home front, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), the final scenes of absence seem light in their load of tragic heft.
Still, there is ample evidence here that, when Eastwood and the other venerable American practitioners of classical narrative are gone from the scene, Gray is in good standing to become the natural inheritor of the tradition which he has so movingly proselytized for. To return to the matter of performance, the film contains two of the best supporting turns in recent memory. The first is courtesy the Scotsman Angus Macfadyen, playing James Murray, a gentleman booster of Fawcett’s cause who is a great asset in the halls of the NGS and an absolute catastrophe in the field when he tags along on Fawcett’s second expedition, managing while compulsively scratching his open sores to seem at once comically pitiable and actively malevolent. The second is Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable beneath a bramble of beard and spectacles, who gives what I can only call a commandingly recessive performance. Pattinson seems to encourage you to forget he’s a movie star; his every tight-lipped line reading is resounding, making you want to lean in; the screen naturally belongs to him, while Hunnam has to take it by main force. Hunnam gets to do the red-meat speechifying to the soldiers before going over the top at the Battle of the Somme, but it's Pattinson's curt "...and fuck the bloody Boche!" that one remembers.
I haven’t shaken what reservations I have about The Lost City of Z, but watching it a second time—on a 35mm print, an experience that most viewers unfortunately won’t be able to share—I was hit with a strong conviction that this is a movie. That is to say, it’s a thing of sculpted light and shadow which shows pure pleasure in the sleight of an associative cut which turns a rivulet of whiskey into a moving train, and in this it differs from culturati-abetted consensus-building pseudo-phenomena as two stacked children in a trenchcoat differ from an actual grown man. Fawcett’s final trip, in particular, is perhaps the purest stretch of visual seduction in Gray’s filmography, beginning with the train taking father and son to the edge of wilderness, intercut with brief views of the homefront à la the conclusion of Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953), and moving to the weird ravishment of the torchlit ceremony that precedes our protagonist’s final disappearance. Here, without belaboring the point, the film gets something of the allure and even majesty of an intact magical holism described so well in A Signal Victory, David Stacton’s 1960 historical novel about Gonzalo Guerrero, Conquistador defector to the cause of the Yucatán Mayans. The scene is eerily becalmed, the apotheosis of Fawcett’s love affair with the rites of the jungle—better to belong to this world in the role of a sacrifice than to rule back home. Likewise, Gray’s cinema is intractable in its devotion to direct petition of the emotions through classical storytelling, and a belief in the powers of collective intoxication and, yes, beauty. In kinship with his romantic hero, he would rather chance to fail in reaching for the glory than to scale his ambition to diminished expectations.