“I’ve been trained for this.” Those words — or some variation — come up several times throughout James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, and they serve as one key to this strange, sprawling, majestic film. In adapting the 2009 nonfiction book about the search for a fabled city in the Amazon, Gray has taken out much of the actual journalism, layering of perspective and even some of the mystery that New Yorker writer David Grann brought to the material. Grann’s book is at least partly concerned with a contemporary investigation into the fate of the obsessed British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared with his son in the Amazon in 1925; the film, less so. But in opting to tell a more linear story about the life of Fawcett, Gray has replaced all that with something else, something very much his own: a look at how society trains us to know our place in it, and how a confrontation with the unknown can completely upend our understanding of the world.
It might seem counterintuitive at first that Gray, who made his name with crime dramas and tales of Eastern European immigrants in New York City, would take on the story of Fawcett (played here with striking melancholy by Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy) and his repeated attempts, early in the 20th century, to track down an ancient and advanced civilization reputed to be deep in the Brazilian jungle. But what made many of Gray’s other films so compelling was the patience, precision and elegance he brought to what were otherwise gritty stories: It was as if a latter-day Visconti had found himself in Brighton Beach. Now, helming an honest-to-god historical epic, Gray proudly lets his classicist flag fly.
Gray’s previous films were also studies in New York’s tribal rituals; be they Russian émigrés in Brooklyn or officers of the NYPD, his characters have always been keenly aware of the unwritten, at times immoral rules by which they must abide. Now, the director has trained his anthropologist’s eye on British society in the war-torn decades between the Edwardian era and modernity. And what he finds is a world of institutionalized aggression where conflict and domination are built into the very fabric of life.
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Gray shoots many of the scenes in England with an old-fashioned polish that makes everything feel predetermined, orderly — from the regimented hunts on country estates, to the red military uniforms dancing with coordinated grace, to the ritualized debates over the findings of Fawcett’s initial expeditions. And the director’s filmic references — whether it’s The Leopard, The Four Feathers, The Charge of the Light Brigade or Barry Lyndon — are all to movies about hierarchies and the ways an established social order preserves and propagates itself. Fawcett and his countrymen know that that order will always persist.
Until, that is, it doesn’t. The world Fawcett knew and navigated for so many years is the same one that soon is blowing its own brains out on the fields of World War I, where the aggression that he and his kind had trained for all their lives is taken to its most absurd extremes. In the trenches, before charging into battle with his men, Fawcett looks longingly at a photo not of his family but of the Amazon. The meaning is twofold: One, that this married father of three has become unnaturally possessed by his quest for Z. But also that, compared to the mechanized slaughterhouse of modern warfare, the supposed hostility of the jungle might actually be somewhat welcome, a source of serenity.
And as Hunnam’s sad-eyed man goes from ambitious officer to reluctant explorer to wounded cynic to full-on obsessive convinced he can find the great lost city, we get a life’s journey that builds toward dissolution. In Amazonia, as Fawcett travels upriver, accompanied initially by Corporal Henry Costin (an unrecognizably grizzled and charming Robert Pattinson) and later by his son Jack (Tom Holland), the orderly cruelty of Western civilization recedes and he starts to become someone else. There’s a freedom here amid the terror and uncertainty. Gradually, the old-world meticulousness of Gray’s filmmaking gives way to something more abstract, a drifting impermanence, as if the director were trying to capture — without losing any of his visual grace or sweep — the wide, beautiful unknowability of existence.
If it sounds like I’m having difficulty describing where The Lost City of Z eventually goes, that’s because I am; words can’t quite do it justice. The good news is that James Gray, even as he pushes at the edges of what is filmable, never loses his capacity for creating moments of rapturous beauty. See this thing on the biggest screen you can find.