"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 David Grann's 2009 nonfiction book to tell a linear story about the life of the obsessed British explorer Percy Fawcett (played here with striking melancholy by Charlie Hunnam), who disappeared with his son in the Amazon in 1925, Gray has created 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.
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. The ordered world Fawcett knew and navigated for so many years blows its own brains out on the fields of World War I. 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. 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 the wide, beautiful unknowability of existence.