It’s always interesting to watch a good filmmaker as they pivot. That’s what seems to be happening at the moment with James Gray, who’s not really a director I’m an expert on but whose work I know well enough that I can tell he’s in a transitional place in his work. Gray began his career with a trilogy of crime films set on the gritty streets of New York and dealing with the Russian mafia. He then seemed like he was going to transition into the realm of intimate contemporary character study when he made the movie Two Lovers but then he seemed to realize that that the indie film world already had more than enough intimate romance films so he switched things up again with his next film The Immigrant. That film was another New York story but one set in 1921 and focusing on a female protagonist. I was really fond of that movie when I saw it a couple of years ago but I’d be lying if I said that it had stuck with me as much as I had thought it would. That movie did seem to indicate a new direction Gray would be going however as his next movie also seems to be taking a classical, if slightly modernized, approach to a familiar kind of period piece, in this case the “jungle adventure.”
That film, The Lost City of Z, is Gray’s first film to not in any way be set in New York. The film is about a British military officer in the late 1800s/early 1900s named Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) whose career has been stunted both because he served in peacetime and because he comes from a family line that’s been previously tainted in scandal. When an opportunity comes along to finally that would allow him to gain military rank and help overcome his family’s legacy he jumps at it and that opportunity comes in the form of working together with the Royal Geographic Society in order to survey the Amazon along the Brazilian/Bolivian border in order to settle those countries land disputes and maintain the peace. While there he finds himself fascinated by the native populations and begins searching for evidence that would suggest that there was once a vast civilization he calls “Z” (which is pronounced “Zed” in the British fashion) in the Amazon which would prove to the other whites that that there was more to these people than it seemed.
The film is based on a recent non-fiction book called “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann and seems to largely be a pretty close re-telling of the real history of Percy Fawcett… and this is kind of a problem. It’s easy to picture Gray reading that book with rapt attention, falling in love with the story it told, and feeling compelled to make audiences the world over as interested in Fawcett as he is. And indeed, this is a guy who did live a fascinating life and I’m glad to have learned about him but his life does not exactly fit into a three act structure, which is not an insurmountable obstacle but it would have forced Gray to either adapt the story a little more to fit into one or found some new creative way to get around it. Instead Gray has opted to do a very straightforward adaptation that would let the facts speak for themselves, which wasn’t necessarily the worst idea ever but it does give the film a pretty awkward through line. It’s very much a film told in simple factual prose instead of poetry more often than not.
That should not suggest that the film doesn’t have its share of redeeming qualities. The film is at its best when it focuses in on that “obsession” that featured in the title of the film’s source material. This manifests itself in some kind of hokey ways at times (looking at you fortune teller) but at its heart it’s pretty interesting. Characters in the film frequently mentions that similar lost cities had also become the fixation of the conquistadors and driving them to ruin, which conjures up images of Aguirre drifting down river surrounded by chimps, and contrasts it with Fawcett’s own obsession for a lost city. His reasons for looking for said lost city are certainly more “woke” than those of the conquistadors but is his obsession any less self-destructive? His motives are also a bit curious. He’s trying to prove that South American natives were capable of building large civilizations with big structures and pottery but it’s not exactly clear in the movie why that would have been such a revelation. Europeans were already well aware of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires at this point so what would a third civilization have really proved? I’m sure there are answers to that question but if any of those answers are in the actual movie I think I missed them. Still, there was something to watching Fawcett’s evolution as a humanitarian and anthropologist of sorts and I was interested to see him doing this to some extent.
Of course one of the things preventing the obsession theme from really reaching its full potential is that Charlie Hunnam’s performance is a bit weak. I’ve never really been much of a fan of Hunnam’s work and while he’s not terrible here or anything but I don’t think he really gives this role the presence that would really make him pop from the screen and become something memorable. Some of the adventure/travelogue elements of the film do work and manage to find a way to be interesting and entertaining without having the kind of Indiana Jones style serial action that often characterizes other jungle adventure films. Still, even if the film is an interesting journey through the Amazon with some respect for the indigenous people, there is another movie that looms large over all this: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which was one of the best movies of last year. For whatever The Lost City of Z does to try to be different from the colonialist narratives of this region it sure as hell isn’t that different and it also isn’t in much of a position to engage in anywhere near that movie’s level formal and narrative experimentation. I’m not trying to just say “this movie with Robert Pattinson in it isn’t as daring as a black and white foreign film, therefore it’s bad” but it does put into perspective that there were more interesting ways to adapt this kind of material and Gray just wasn’t able to find them.